There's something neurotic and troubling at the center of Wes Anderson's now iconic style. People are beginning to talk. Over the past 15 years, he's created an instantly recognizable aesthetic and it's very good. His films cut houses in half and show us the moody souls of the people inside of them. But some of you are saying you're over it, that you want something different. I can't tell you that Moonrise Kingdom breaks the Anderson mold, but I promise that the mold is evolving. The storytelling is more brilliant and new characters have been brought into the fold. You can play bingo with Anderson tropes: Yellow titles. Old music. Symmetrical framing. Anderson's films are easy to spot, but they are not particularly varied. So here's the question: Does it matter?
Watching Moonrise Kingdom, his sixth live-action feature, I felt simultaneously annoyed and won over. A young girl staring at us through binoculars? Really, Wes? Again? I think he can't help himself. These are the crayons he's been given to color with, and we have to take it or leave it.
It's 1965 on an island off the coast of New England, two kids have absconded and there's a storm coming. At one corner of the island, we meet a gang of Khaki Scouts on what appears to be a never-ending overnight expedition. They are led by Scout Master Ward, played by Edward Norton, who is as delightful and heartbreaking as ever. Sam (an actual 13-year-old, played by Jared Gilman in his first ever role) is a misfit and an orphan. Suzy (Kara Hayward) lives in a big house on the island with her parents, played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, along with her pajama-clad little brothers. Suzy and Sam develop an adolescent romance through letter writing. Their connection is born out of a mutual inability to fit in; they're meant to be together. They meet in the wilderness, armed with Sam's survival skills and Suzy's suitcase full of books. When Sam unbuttons his scout uniform and the two of them dance on the beach in their underwear, God. Their romance is as serious as a war. It may remind you of a time in your life that was so crisp and painful that you've willfully forgotten it in adulthood.
This is a comedy and an adventure story and a traditional fable of star-crossed lovers. There are social workers in menacing blue uniforms. (Oh, hello, Tilda Swinton; what are you doing here?) There are gunfights in the woods, dirt bikes, high climbs up steeples, flood waters and shotgun weddings. The stakes are high.
People have argued that the acting in an Anderson film is wooden, that anyone could do it. Really? Could anybody be Bill Murray? Try imagining Cameron Diaz as Margot Tenenbaum, or Tom Hanks in the Edward Norton role. Even a young Tom Hanks, and you'll see that there is deliberation in the casting and that it matters. Anderson plays the star system to his advantage; happy actors need not apply. Bruce Willis is my favorite addition to the universe. Does he ever smile? Surely he does, but can you picture it?
Look at a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan, whose movies have jumped the shark and then fallen into a pit with nothing but sharks all the way to the bottom, and you're thinking, "Jesus Christ, just quit with the smoky colors, the somber acting, the lame twists." But here's the thing: He can't stop. M. Night Shyamalan can't do anything but horror, and Wes Anderson can't live without skullcaps, absent parents and The Kinks. Some artists are just like that.
Even if the films of Wes Anderson have roughly the same flavor, at least, unlike Shyamalan, the flavor gets richer with age—more sophisticated. Every time out, Anderson's uncovered something different, some brand new sadness that hurts, but still, it's funny. Moonrise Kingdom functions in an alternate universe that gets every detail correct. The camera zooms up to a front door, and you would swear it's a dollhouse until a human comes walking out, stands dead center in the frame and stares at you. Now you are on your own. What are you going to do with this feeling?
Moonrise Kingdom continues at the Wilma Theatre.