Moonrise Kingdom: American Comic

Wes Anderson’s ability to filter the day-to-day through his funhouse mind and make happiness not so much the subject of our lives as the punchline has always made his work seem like the passing of a childhood summer. So of all his films, Moonrise Kingdom sets itself up to be the most iconic, being most about the mood that Anderson finds in anything. On Pay-Per-View, this film would be about two eighty-year-old lovers escaping hospice together and would probably star Maggie Smith and Albert Finney. But Anderson casts his lovers at the age of twelve. And that is his special magic.

Newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman play Suzy and Sam, who met each other at a play and became pen pals. Their decision to run away together is mutual and absolute, told in a flurried flashback where their letters finish each other’s sentences. Even when confronted with an unofficial marriage, their devotion to each other is shamelessly certain.

As a counterpoint to their version of love, a gaggle of adults stages an absurd search party involving Sam’s entire Boy Scout troop, motorcycles, bows and arrows, boats, and a little hunting dog named Snoopy. “Was he a good dog?” Suzy asks after Snoopy is accidentally kabobbed by a stray arrow. “Who’s to say?” Sam replies. They (and Anderson) aren't judging anyone by escaping from them -- they don't even know what to think of Snoopy, about whom the audience feels more than they do. Their escape is frantic and momentary, as if the very next summer they might get old enough to start worrying and forget why it was so important to run away from the world in the first place. There's no time for judgment.

In the scoutmaster, or the island patrol captain, or the scout’s commander-in-chief, or Suzy’s mom, tremulous adulthood leads a caring assault on their attempt at forbidden freedom. It’s a reminder why their quest is so essential, as they French-kiss against a setting sun or pitch an innocent little camp on an inlet that may soon be swallowed by the oncoming storm. The plight of Sam and Suzy’s love resonates deeper than two kids dancing on the beach in their underwear has any right to.

And that’s the whole point: in a world where experienced grown-ups cheat on each other and walk through life looking down at their shoes, two kids who love each other without question are somehow the ones that have to be set straight. Anderson finds the people that others don’t understand and he tries to avenge them. Has he failed or succeeded, now that so many people absolutely love his work? Are there now new little people somewhere, outside of the consensus, who need someone else to be their voice? If Sam ever grew up, he’d probably become Bill Murray.

I haven’t named the rest of the cast because it makes it seem like a different movie, like Anderson was waiting in a car outside a Tarantino casting, ready to pounce. Edward Norton plays the scoutmaster, who worries over Sam and the rest of his boys, saying things like “Jiminy Christmas” as though he hadn’t noticed that no one says that anymore. Anderson helps Bruce Willis find that forlornness that he has in him when someone helps him look for it; as the raw, weathered boat captain, in Moonrise Kingdom he has the sadness that Willis buries inside of wit whenever someone else asks him to play a confident person. It’s what has always made him perfect to stop doing terrible Die Hard movies someday, if he ever loved himself enough (this is probably the first time I’ve seen that version of him since Unbreakable). He’s sleeping with Suzy’s mom, played by Frances McDormand, whose confident titter (confident enough to seem accidental) makes her perfectly suited to acting like her vices are everyone else’s fault. If I had a problem with this movie, it might be that even in the midst of all these gems, I want more McDormand. Harvey Keitel is preposterous as the scout general. Tilda Swinton wafts in and out with a snide fuss as a character called Social Services.

No one says anything serious, but everything is said most seriously (this is perhaps the simplest version of the formula for Anderson's signature tone). Moonrise Kingdom is full of physical humor, but the kind that many movies don’t realize qualifies as slapstick: it’s in the way a person’s body becomes a device of their personality. Everyone does it in this movie: observe how Willis sits within his sadness, or how Norton moves in such a way that makes you think he hopes everyone notices that he doesn’t care if they notice. Humor is the secret everyone in this film does a terrible job keeping, though it seems like they’re always trying really hard.

Anderson isn’t a comedian by the normal definition. He’s someone who pretends to have no idea how any of this understated stuff is funny at all (that’s what’s so funny). Bill Murray, here playing Suzy’s dad, frequents Anderson’s films for a reason. Does anyone play a clown with such sad eternity in their eyes? He's one push away from being funny but without ever getting there. Moonrise Kingdom completely occupies that personality space that Murray lives in; everyone else buys a summer house there to keep him company. It's so open with its heart that if it ever tried to be funnier, you'd think it had lost all faith in itself, like Murray telling a literal joke. It would fall apart.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman brings his now trademark fixed cameras and sarcastic docu-comedy to Moonrise Kingdom as though Penzance Island were a layered doll’s house opened down the middle. He looks into rooms like L.B. Jeffries does, peeling them back, telling visual stories about people’s quirks from a preposterous distance and a fantastical color palette. His characters peer directly into the audience without a hint of awareness or irony. The stillness in every frame recalls “American Gothic,” as though the two farmers never noticed they looked funny to everyone else. Wielding Yeoman, Anderson makes and remakes his idea of “American Comic.”

Most notably, Bob Balaban appears as an onscreen narrator to tell exactly where and when this occurs, as out of a documentary in a fantasy world where those mean something. Really, this could be anywhere and anytime, but it helps create that sense of transience that Anderson would somehow evoke even in a shot of breakfast cereal, directed by what the ancient poet Virgil called “tears for things.” It’s within these things that Anderson shoots everything, every dollhouse and each cornflake, and even the smallest kindness in his work seems like a memorial to an age we feel we remember but may have never actually lived. He seems to hope it's the thought that counts.

His characters don’t talk about people or plot. They just revel in minutiae and all these together somehow combine into a narrative. Even they themselves are preposterously important, like somehow this movie is a real place with only the essential characters living there. Like the recorded demonstration of the parts of a Fugue that bookends the film, characters take turns playing their part of the tune; Anderson is so wanton with how sad, and creased, and poetic his world becomes that it’s easy to think he doesn’t know what he’s doing with all his little bits of life, other than trying to make us feel anything about it. But it’s impossible to forget he’s there and to not notice the little joys that he cries over like a heap of lost things. I cry into my cornflakes over this movie.

Perhaps love between children shouldn’t be sexual, we’re told, but Sam and Suzy share their bodies in an innocent way when they reach the beach at the edge of the world (“They’ll grow bigger,” Suzy says as Sam squeezes her chest). Maybe it's not that children should refrain from sexuality but that adults don't even remember what's important about it. The adults encroaching on their freedom never seem unreasonable or evil to anyone except to themselves, but they're clearly wandering through their lives without stopping for a summertime. These twelve-year-olds have something to say about the adult world and its rules, not the other way around. Anderson is a great enabler.

No one in film today matches Anderson's particular stone-faced glee (Buster Keaton was the king of it, once), whose shifts in perspective and coolly comic fixed angles make all his films bounce like a Shostakovich waltz. With Moonrise Kingdom, he makes not a parody of love, but a parody of other’s intentions to make them. As others resurrect geezers out of hospice or thrust randy teens into a situation where romance is inevitable, Anderson sends children out into their innocent wildernesses and for a couple of hours gives us their point-of-view shot on all our lives. The world of romance movies is kind of like a rambling Fugue after all, with all its parts and blends and balances. There have been films about possibly every section of its orchestra by itself. After seeing Moonrise Kingdom, I can’t shake the feeling that Anderson may have just given us the melody.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson

Roman Coppola

Sam Jared Gilman
Suzy Kara Hayward
Captain Sharp Bruce Willis
Scout Master Ward Edward Norton
Social Services Tilda Swinton
Cousin Ben Jason Schwartzman
Commander Pierce Harvey Keitel
Narrator Bob Balaban

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