Monday, June 11, 2012

MOONRISE KINGDOM is One of Wes Anderson's Best!


- Say what you want about Wes Anderson, but the guy is a unique and creative voice in the world of film.  Seeing a new Anderson film always feels like a breath of fresh air - in a marketplace full of me-too's, his movies are personal and wholly his own. Some criticize Anderson for his trademark whimsical aesthetic. And I get it - if quirkiness is used as a crutch, as a replacement for smart writing and great characters - then it can be a drag. But when Anderson is making movies as charming and as funny as Moonrise Kingdom, his eccentricities are more than welcome in my book. This is one of Anderson's most rewarding, heartfelt, and most accomplished films yet.

Moonrise Kingdom is a story of young love - told, of course, through Anderson's oddball lense. The film takes place in the 60's, and is set in a small New England coastal town. In this town lives Sam (Jared Gilman), an eccentric orphan who lives with disapproving foster parents and who is part of a boy scout troop, where is categorically the least-popular of all the boys. Sam loves the outdoors and honing his survival skills, and would be a great scout if not for the fact that he tends to wander off on his own private adventures. He's not exactly a team player. One day, while his troop attends a play, Sam wanders off and stumbles into the dressing room of some of the girls in the pageant. One of the girls is Suzy (Kara Hayward), a sullen, wise-beyond-her-years bookworm who's prone to fits of rage when she's annoyed. For Sam, it's love at first sight. He begins writing letters to Suzy, and the two become pen pals. Given that both of them lead somewhat lonely lives, they agree in their correspondence to meet and run away together. Sam flees from his boyscout troop, sending his erstwhile Scout Master (Edward Norton) on a quest to retrieve him. Suzy escapes from her bickering parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). Meanwhile, a local policeman (Bruce Willis) is on the case, in search of the two missing kids.

Anderson has long had the ability to get great, memorable performances from his actors - often inspiring them to do amazing work in against-type roles. We see that again here, as Moonrise is just packed with fantastic turns. Edward Norton is hilarious and just plain great as Scout Master Ward, the Dudley-Do-Right-esque troop leader whose bible is the scout's handbook. Bruce Willis is also great as a the schlubby policeman whose quest to find Sam and Suzy brings to light his personal relationship with Suzy's mother. And Suzy's mom, played by Frances McDormand, proves to be yet another great turn for the actress. Bill Murray - now an Anderson regular - is subtle and understated as Suzy's dour dad. It's yet another Anderson-Murray collaboration that brings out the best in Murray.

And the two kids - they're great. Gillman makes Sam into a classic Anderson protagonist - he's a weird kid, yet he feels relatable because he's that weird, awkward kid in all of us. And Hayward makes Suzy into a dreamer - a girl who's quickly maturing into a woman yet still very much just a kid. The kind of girl who Sam would easily fall in love with, and yet who just might love him in return. Just as Sam uses his Boy Scout skills to fashion himself into some sort of would-be explorer and adventurer, Suzy wants to be like one of the girl-heroes in her pulp sci-fi novels that she carries with her everywhere. Both live in a mundane world, but both use their imaginations to become heroes in their own great adventures. To that end, this is a story that's perfect for Anderson's left-of-center storybook style.

Moonrise has some very funny deadpan humor - and it's no surprise that guys like Murray and Norton - as well as supporting players like Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton and Bob Balaban - are able to pull if off pitch-perfectly. But the film also surprised me with just how much it wore its heart on its sleeve. Some of Anderson's more recent works may have felt a bit detached, but Moonrise feels like one of his more personal films. It's a movie about finding your partner in crime - about finding someone who will stick by your side when it's just the two of you against the world. Sam and Suzy may just be kids, but Anderson uses that fact to great effect, because their budding young romance is in stark contrast to the crumbling - adult - relationship between Murray and McDormand. Suffice it to say, there's a lot going on here just below the surface.

By the same token, this is a very, very smart script. As written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, the film continually surprised me with the turns it took, and though it is a love story, and a pure one at that, it avoids cliches and has a lot of moments that are both out of left field yet also perfectly in tune with the world that is created here. Each character is just beautifully-drawn, and the dialogue is spot-on. The movie also looks amazing. Anderson's usual eye for detail is on full display, with meticulously crafted sets and costumes. There are some gorgeously-composed shots here as well - throughout the film, the colors pop and the visuals shine.

All of Wes Anderson's movies tend to have a degree of melancholy in them. But I was surprised and pleased to find that Moonrise Kingdom is, in its own way, a pretty joyous film. It has moments of real darkness, and it continues the Anderson tradition of shining the spotlight on outsiders and outcasts and eccentrics. But it also posits that the eccentrics, the dreamers, and the weirdos may be just one awkward conversation away from finding their soulmate and partner in crime. And that - that may be all they need to stand tall and take on the world. Moonrise Kingdom is a funny, quirky, charmer that will leave you smiling, and happy that Wes Anderson is out there letting us get a glimpse into his one-of-a-kind imagination.

My Grade: A-

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