The great film critic Andrew Sarris passed away last week, at age 83. Sarris is best known for popularizing the "auteur theory" of film, asserting that the film's director is its primary author — an idea that has since grown so commonplace as to seem obvious.
If ever there was a clear-cut case study for this notion, it's Wes Anderson, whose seventh feature, Moonrise Kingdom, opens locally this week.
There's a good argument to be had on where exactly Anderson should be slotted among the taxonomic categories Sarris established in his classic 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 — a work of whimsically obsessive sorting that would no-doubt appeal to many a young Anderson character. As a sometimes conflicted fan, I would vote "The Far Side of Paradise" or maybe "Expressive Esoterica," but I can certainly see how a doubter or detractor might want to file Anderson under "Less Than Meets the Eye" or even "Strained Seriousness."
But there's no doubting that "a Wes Anderson film" implies a very specific thing or, rather, a certain bundle of narrative or stylistic elements: Makeshift or damaged families. Scheming, precocious misfit kids. An often overlooked or misunderstood sense of cultural aspiration. Reserved gestures and elegant, erudite, and/or deadpan comic dialogue that barely disguise deep emotions. A melancholy remembrance of childhood. Characters coping with mostly unspoken familial losses. Pinpoint use of vintage pop music. A typically — or is it increasingly? — red-yellow-brown color scheme. Meticulous visual design in which character information, story detail, and emotional biography are often conveyed via background bric-a-brac.
After a still-formative but joyful first film, 1996's Bottle Rocket, Anderson broke out in a major way with the frantic yet intensely focused Rushmore and the ambitious Magnificent Ambersons riff The Royal Tenenbaums. But the following The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou felt like Anderson's ultra-specific style curdling into self-parody. It had all the elements of "a Wes Anderson film" but without the same emotional depth charges or sense of purpose. The Darjeeling Limited — a thematic but ostensibly unrelated extended Tenenbaums coda — was a rebound, but a minor one.
And then came Fantastic Mr. Fox. The handcrafted animation of that 2009 bundle of joy, an adaptation of a slender kid-lit title from Roald Dahl, re-energized Anderson's work, finding a perfect new arena for Anderson's richly designed style.
Moonrise Kingdom is a tentative but encouraging step back to live-action.
Set in 1965 — amid the old-growth pine and maple and intersecting bike trails and foot paths of New Penzance, a fictional island off the coast of New England — Moonrise Kingdom is a teen romance of sorts that opens with twin gliding shots across relatively static his-and-hers tableaux. First is the substantial but well-worn multi-story family home of 12-year-old Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who lives with her lawyer parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and three little brothers. The dollhouse-like tour of this space — street address: Summer's End — evokes childhood leisure time in much the way the seemingly unchanged Tenenbaum estate did: Worn albums played on a plastic, portable kiddie record player. Stacks of board games in the background. A set of encyclopedias lining a low shelf. Made-up girls fantasy-adventure books (Shelly and the Secret Universe) that Suzy reads while tucked within a window space overlooking her siblings, a la Margot Tenenbaum.
Next is Camp Ivanhoe, the nearby home of Khaki Scouts Troop 55, lead by earnest math-teacher-by-trade Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton). We're introduced to the camp in a long, unbroken, horizontal tracking shot that follows Ward's morning inspection through various seriocomic camp settings, leading to his discovery of an AWOL camper, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman), who has, it turns out, taken to the waterways of New Penzance by canoe, to the tune of Hank Williams' "Kaw-Liga," on some type of undisclosed mission.
Sam is a precursor of sorts to Rushmore's Max Fisher: silently grieving over a lost mother. (He wears a ruby brooch tucked amid his scout patches; Max used a typewriter with a maternal inscription — both details that pass by so quickly many may not notice them.) Both throw themselves into extracurricular activities with a monomaniacal zeal. Both come from rougher family backgrounds than their classmates or fellow campers. (Max was a barber's son at a private school; Sam is in foster care.) Both are maybe a little creepy.
It turns out that Sam and Suzy have both set out for a rendezvous they'd been planning as pen pals for a year, since they first met when Sam crashed the backstage dressing area of a church Noah's Ark play in which Sally was starring. (His first words to her: "What kind of bird are you?")
They bond over shared loneliness and feelings of alienation — Suzy spotted her mother reading a book called Coping With the Very Troubled Child; a split-second glimpse at Sam's Khaki Scout file shows a photo where he's holding his pellet gun in the same pose as Lee Harvey Oswald — and take further, uncertain steps toward a theoretical romance. Much more of a teen film than even Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom pointedly lacks that film's utopian intergenerational camaraderie.
The bulk of the film follows Sam and Suzy's odd, initially sovereign idyll — most memorably at a beachfront camp that ultimately provides the film's title — and the increasingly desperate attempts by the various adults in their lives to track them down. (And, also, by Sam's fellow scouts, whose motivations shift mid-adventure. Scout Master Ward instructs them at the outset: "Remember, this isn't just a search mission. It's a chance to do some first-class scouting.") Along the way, there are some surprising moments of violence and hints at pre-teen sexuality that border on the uncomfortable. (Mad Men fans may helplessly think of that series' kid-courtship of sorts between Sally Draper and former neighbor boy Glen, who looks a bit like an older version of Moonrise Kingdom's Sam.)
In the third act, these dual fronts collide and the film devolves into slapstick and theatrical overstatement (a desperate military wedding of sorts at Khaki Scout headquarters Fort Lebanon, presided over by Max Fisher himself, Jason Schwartzman). And a convenient, storm-driven cataclysm is messy in more ways than one.
The adults here are a mixed bag. Murray is an Anderson regular, but hasn't really been great in an Anderson film since Rushmore. McDormand is perfect for this style and Norton also fits in well. But Bruce Willis — as the island sheriff who develops a protective bond with Sam — never seems comfortable, and Tilda Swinton, as a child-services officer, is just too much.
But even with these imperfections, Moonrise Kingdom — which lands somewhere between the triumphs of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums and the difficulties of The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited — is far more compelling than most anything else you can catch on the big screen right now and a good sign that Anderson's trademark style has some life left in it.
Opening Friday, June 29th