Friday, June 29, 2012

Mixed feelings on Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom

Lars von Trier is a Danish director best known for experimental films like 2009's Antichrist and last year's Melancholia. His next movie is called The Nymphomaniac. It's about a woman's sexual awakening. His explanation for the film's inspiration:
"My director of photography on Melancholia at one point voiced a surprising prejudice. He urged me not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into--that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. That's all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder."
I couldn't keep that quote out of my head when watching a 12-year-old girl wearing heavy make-up and a fetishized schoolgirl outfit undress in Wes Anderson's new film, Moonrise Kingdom. Anderson is only 43; if Lars von Trier's hypothesis is correct, I shudder to think what Wes Anderson will be doing in ten years.

I don't want to come off as sex-negative, though. I consider myself a very liberal person when it comes to what's acceptable in film. But this awkward nudity was representative of Moonrise Kingdom's bigger problem: tonal clash.

Moonrise Kingdom is full of characters with complex, depressing backstories. The main character is a kid who's been orphaned. His love interest is a girl with emotional issues and uncaring parents. Edward Norton plays a scout leader who just wants to lead the troop but can't seem to control his situation at all, and Bruce Willis plays an aging police officer who's afraid of dying alone. Bill Murray is an unhappy husband who is physically abused by his wife.

But it's all got such a happy-go-lucky, "quirky" Wes Anderson attitude! The film sports a colorful 1960s Americana setting, with self-aware, intentionally unrealistic dialogue. This story is one that could be told better in a more un-ironic setting. It's about tortured characters coming to terms with their situations in life, and this doesn't seem to work with Wes Anderson's bright visual aesthetic.

Moonrise Kingdom also seems to be trying to convey a few subtexts. The entire movie is clearly an homage to the "young adult" adventure novels we see the female protagonist reading throughout the story. There also seems to be some sort of Noah's Ark narrative going on, but it's incomplete. There are some nice touches, like kids wearing creepy animal masks (reminiscent of In Bruges and The Wicker Man). But it doesn't seem to add up to anything. Moonrise Kingdom has a satisfyingly happy ending for all its melancholy characters, but I can only imagine the movie would be something more if its director took it more seriously.

I think back to Swedish director Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, a film that conveyed a complex storyline through 12-year-old protagonists in a much more convincing way than Wes Anderson seems capable of. Perhaps the key to unlocking compelling preteen characters is the actors themselves--Alfredson spent almost a year casting the two leads. It shows, as Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson deliver spectacular performances as protagonists Oskar and Eli. This is something that cannot be understated when child actors are such a hit-or-miss affair.

Wes Anderson's casting, on the other hand, does not fare so well. All the characters in the film are evocative and compelling... except the main character, Sam Shakusky (payed by Jared Gilman). While his love interest Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) provides a dark look into child psychology, Sam just falls into the standard "outcast kid" archetype. It's strange, because Wes Anderson has achieved character depth before with movies like The Life Aquatic. Perhaps it's just kids he struggles with--his portrayal of high school in Rushmore was also fairly unconvincing.

Let the Right One In's protagonists, in fact, have many 12-year-old-kid similarities with those of Moonrise Kingdom. Both Oskar and Sam are misunderstood nerdy boys who fall in love with forbidden women. Both Eli and Suzy are more mature than their age indicates; both have mysterious backgrounds and questionable parentage. Both have a pivotal scene in a bathtub.

And while I decried the slightly pedophilic nature of Suzy taking her clothes off, Let the Right One In also features a scene where the female protagonist disrobes and sleeps with the male lead. But with Eli and Oskar, it seems emotional and not out of place at all. After watching Moonrise Kingdom, I can't help but feel Wes Anderson has a lot to learn from Let the Right One In.


  1. Jake--you are such a good writer. Now I have to add all the movies you mentioned here to my ever-growing, jake-inspired Netflix list. And, is the verb form of Netflix Netflex, as in "I Netflexed that movie."?

    I'm glad to read a movie review because I don't usually have any frame of reference for the video games you review. Love, love, love.

  2. While I loved Let the Right One In, I also loved Moonrise Kingdom.
    I've not been a Wes Anderson buff and have avoided his movies since Rushmore. Rushmore was a bit too snarky and full of itself for my tastes when it came out. After Moonrise Kingdom I went back and watched the recent movies I've avoided, and interestingly it cemented in my general dislike of his films.
    For me Moonrise Kingdom has a nostalgic and stilted sweetness that captures the border of childhood and adolescence wonderfully.
    For me the self-consciousness of Mr. Anderson's style thematically was a perfect match for the story and characters in a way it didn't click for me in Mr. Fox, or Life Aquatic. I have Royal Tennenbaums next in my queue, but I fear it'll also not work for me in the way the others haven't.

  3. Bill Murray's character is not physically abused by his wife in the film! She cheats on him, but where on earth did you get that she hits him? His black eye? It's very clearly explained that he fell as a result of Suzy taking the batteries from his flashlight. God, pay attention.