Jared Gilman as Sam Shakusky
Kara Hayward as Suzy Bishop
Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp
Edward Norton as Scout Master Randy Ward
Bill Murray as Walt Bishop
Frances McDormand as Laura Bishop
Tilda Swinton as Social Services
Jason Schwartzman as Cousin Ben
Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce
Bob Balaban as Narrator
Even though Woody Allen is still alive and kicking (and picking up Oscars), writer-director Wes Anderson continues his quest to be the post-modern version of Allen. He’s been doing that long enough now, with little deviation, that anyone interested in Anderson’s oeuvre knows what he’s about and has their mind made up one way or the other. Anderson’s latest, “Moonrise Kingdom” isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion if you like what he does, “Kingdom” is a perfectly serviceable example and far more focused than his last live-action outing “The Darjeeling Limited.”
The focus of his particular brand of quirkiness this go-round is a tiny island off the coast of Somewhere, New England filled with little but a dedicated Khaki Scoutmaster (Edward Norton) and his troop, and the summer home for a pair of well-off lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and their children. Unknownst to these summer vacationers, but knownst to us, two of these children (Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward) have developed a pen pal relationship after a brief encounter, building up to a plan to run away together.
In a sense, “Moonrise Kingdom” is exactly what you expect it to be. All of Anderson’s particular ticks are in place, visual and literary. The action is laid out in a series of perfectly arranged tableaus like the covers of Suzy’s beloved young adult adventure novels, with Anderson pulling in jokes and drama from the sides of the frame like swarms of attacking Khaki Scouts running about in an incredibly organized version of “Lord of the Flies.” He’s filled that frame with more of his particular brand of damaged characters suffering from broken relationships particularly with their parents, and most particularly with their father figures and fighting desperately against the loneliness of human nature in a desperate bid to find someone to connect to.
That favored theme is literally played out by precocious young lovebirds Sam and Suzy who, having found that desperate connection, have decided nothing else matters and are willing to leave the world behind. Sam is an orphan who has found little in humanity to relate to in the various foster homes he has lived at, while Suzy has been privy to her parents’ marriage slowly disintegrating and her mother’s tryst with the island’s sheriff (Bruce Willis).
Their flight across the island, followed by various ‘rescuers,’ gives Anderson plenty of opportunity for his particular brand of excessively dry humor as the children react with awesomely adult awareness to themselves and their lives while the adults puzzle over just what the hell is going on. It all plays out with a lack of melodrama that borders on naturalism, or it would if it didn’t include kids getting attacked with lefty scissors and a scout quartermaster who performs illegal wedding services.
It must be fairly said that there is nothing really new in “Moonrise Kingdom.” Everything he is saying here he has said before, and in the same way. Because of that he has not, and it seems never will, reach the heights of his early work like “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums.” On the other hand, what he does, he does very well. Anderson’s visual style and the essence of his narratives are so tightly bound together, to change one would invariably change the other and most likely not for the better.
Many of Andersons usual cohorts are on hand for his latest, from returning co-writer Roman Coppola to frequent cast members Murray and Schwartzman. Of the newbies, Willis in particular is an excellent fit as the island’s sad, lonely lawman and provides most of the film’s real humanity and pathos. It’s easy to see a lot of the mannerism in the performances that Anderson has been accused of, but it is underlined by more real truth than he has attempted in some time, particularly where the numerous child actors are concerned.
Anderson certainly won’t be the first talent to be lost somewhat in making the same film about himself or the world over and over, just look at any of the movies by Charlie Kaufman or Terence Malick and you’ll see the same trend. It’s almost as if that unique point of view that makes them so interesting also brings a helping of creative OCD with it.
The upside is that you get compelling films out of it and Anderson has lost none of his skill for drawing interesting characters that remain resolutely human for all their strangeness. “Kingdom” benefits as well from a better designed story that does not weave restlessly the way his last did, but it’s still not going to convince anyone who doesn’t already like what Anderson does to follow along. For those who are willing, or are willing to give Anderson another try, it is definitely worth the effort.
Moonrise Kingdom is now playing in select cities but expands nationwide on Friday, June 29.