Something happened to Wes Anderson’s artistic sensibility in the 16 years between his debut, Bottle Rocket (1996), and his sixth live-action feature, Moonrise Kingdom (now in theaters). It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what, but he definitely seems to have regressed as he’s aged. His first three films, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore (1998), and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), mined the depths of their main characters’ emotions. The adults, for the most part, acted like adults – even if they were troubled in one way or another. They were the funny, moving, memorable works of an auteur who arrived with his style fully formed.
But then came a swing and a miss with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). The richly drawn characters and genuine emotion of the first films was replaced with insufferable cutesiness. Whimsical sea creatures, a random pirate attack, and acoustically-rendered David Bowie songs provided all the quirks, but there seemed little else going on. The Darjeeling Limited (2007) was even more depressing as all substance was drained from Anderson’s vision. The characters seemed to be rehashes from the earlier films. The story of a trio of fraternal overgrown, momma’s boys was extremely stale. After a well-received detour into feature-length animation with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), the time was right for a return to form.
Many critics seem to believe that’s exactly what Moonrise Kingdom represents. Anderson, who (in addition to directing) co-wrote the screenplay with his Darjeeling collaborator Roman Coppola, has received the best reviews of his career. But for what? Moonrise Kingdom is perhaps the ultimate example of style over substance. The intentionally grainy cinematography by Anderson regular Robert Yeoman looks fantastic, recreating the faded colors of old snapshots. Anderson’s visual flair remains as strong as ever, yet his characterizations are at their weakest. Nothing about the film resonates. It looks and feels like a Wes Anderson movie, but it evaporates from the memory as soon as its 94 minutes are over.
The year is 1965 and 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (newcomer Jared Gilman) has decided to bail on Camp Ivanhoe, the summer camp he’s been attending with his Khaki Scout troop. Socially awkward Sam has better things to do than continue to get picked on by the other scouts. His leader, Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), notifies his parents that he has run away – only to discover that Sam is an orphan whose foster parents no longer welcome him in their home. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) has been Sam’s pen pal for the past year and they’ve decided to secretly meet up and camp out together. Randy tells Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the police captain on the island community of New Penzance, about the disappearance of Sam. It’s not long before Sharp also learns of Suzy’s disappearance from her parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand).
There’s really not much more to the breezily thin plot. Sam and Suzy romp around on the beach (reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika) while the adults and the other Khaki Scouts form a search party. A social services worker (Tilda Swinton) gets involved, demanding that Sam be found and delivered to a “juvenile refuge.” A narrator (Bob Balaban), who appears onscreen from time to time, explains that the island’s inhabitants are unaware of a massive storm front approaching. The storm hits just as the cat-and-mouse chase for Sam and Suzy is reaching a climax. The film takes a startlingly misguided turn into pure farce in its third act, resulting in a jarring tonal shift that smacks of desperation. Anderson, maybe aware that his film has all the substance of cotton candy, seems willing to throw anything at the wall, regardless of whether it serves his story or not.
Of the adult actors, only Willis manages to break through the formulaic preciousness with glimmers of actual humanity. Captain Sharp is a lonely bachelor who sees a bit of himself in Sam, and the bond between the two approaches something tangible. Norton, however, is wasted – forced to play a cardboard non-character. Murray essentially reprises his Tenenbaums role of the cuckolded Raleigh St. Clair (here his wife Laura emasculates him in much the same way that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot did in the earlier film).
The children carry most of the dramatic weight on their inexperienced shoulders. I don’t think it’s fair to critique the work of Jared Gilman or Kara Hayward – both only 12 when Moonrisewas filmed. Neither had acted professionally before. Anderson forces them to deliver their lines in an unaffected, flat monotone. Worse still, Anderson leers at Hayward, keeping the camera trained on her overly made-up face and sometimes scantily-clad body. The beach scene in which Suzy and Sam dance in their underwear, followed by Suzy’s invitation to fondle her breasts and French kiss her, is uncomfortable rather than sweet.
I mean, I’m no prude, but there’s entirely too much 12-year-old flesh on display. It’s not the idea that these kids are tentatively responding to their burgeoning sexual feelings that bothers me. The icky-factor comes from the way Anderson presents it. Would the exact same scene, staged in the same fashion, have raised a few more eyebrows if it had been directed by, say, Todd Solondz? There’s something inherent disturbing about the way Anderson slips such an undercurrent of lasciviousness into a film drenched in highly stylized (read: phony) “innocence.” It’s basically Lolita, only instead of Humbert Humbert, Anderson has disguised himself as a 12-year-old boy.
Is Moonrise Kingdomreally a celebration of childhood innocence anyway? I don’t buy it. In fact, I’d say it comes across as exactly the opposite of innocent. The film is ultimately depressingly cynical. The children act like world-weary adults, while the adults are treated almost uniformly as idiotic buffoons or dullards. Instead of a celebration of youthful optimism, it represents the sputtering, stunted development of a once-promising director who can’t decide if he’d rather be Peter Pan or Holden Caulfield. With Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson tries to split the difference but comes up empty-handed (and empty-headed).