Sun, Moon, & Stars: Wes Anderson’s A-List ‘Kingdom’

Is there a director with a more distinct signature than Wes Anderson? His meticulous mise-en-scene has spawned a slew of copycats; the word “twee” might have been created specifically to refer to his brand of filmmaking.

Fantastic Mr. Fox was one of my Top 10 Films of 2009, but beyond that, the Anderson ouvre has been one of diminishing returns. I liked Rushmore, but was never over the moon about it the way many critics are; The Royal Tenenbaums was more my speed, because at the time, it felt fresh. But then I’d had my fill of quirk. I just couldn’t muster the will to see The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited, which seemed like increasingly fanciful retreads of the same damn thing. It’s a criticism lobbed at Anderson often; I imagine he takes offense to that argument that “all his movies are the same.” Must an artist necessarily broaden his horizons from one project to the next?

I don’t know. If Anderson can consistently get the films he wants to make financed, more power to him. There’s something delightful about the way he marches to the beat of his own drummer, everyone else be damned. A lot of people try to do what Anderson does, but few do it as well. Still, when I saw the trailer for Moonrise Kingdom, I wasn’t sure if it was a legit Wes Anderson movie or a parody: Wes Anderson Movie. And I didn’t know if I was up for another round of esteemed actors acting ridiculous in the dead-center of the frame while an ironically emotive soundtrack plays.

But as it turns out, I was! (Mostly.) Moonrise Kingdom is classic Anderson, OCD warts and all, but it’s hard to stay mad when the results are so charming. Moreso than his other non-Fox movies (that I’ve seen, anyway), it takes place in a heightened reality that is all his own, and it helps that the two central characters are children. (As with his other films, there is a strange dichotomy between the storybook-like nature of his presentation and the not-for-kids subject matter.) Leads Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are inexperienced actors, and at times, it shows, but they also bring an unpolished quality that’s welcome in Anderson’s otherwise overscrubbed universe. Everything else is so overworked that it’s nice to see two actors who are a little rough around the edges.

Moonrise Kingdom stars an impressive cadre of beloved performers, from Bruce Willis to Frances McDormand to Edward Norton to Tilda Swinton to Jason Scwhartzman to Anderson muse Bill Murray to a very random cameo I won’t spoil. Each gets a cute bit here and there, though no one actors is given a terrific lot to do. You get the sense that the cast brings more to the project than the script brings to them, but with A-list talent like this, I suppose that’ll do. The story begins with a missing “Khaki Scout,” also an orphan, and the troop of scrappy young lads (led by an amusingly square Norton) who set off to search for him in a fictional island community in New England. Meanwhile, the local police force — which may consist entirely of lone Captain Sharp (Willis) — is conducting its own investigation. However, Sharp is more preoccupied with the love affair he’s conducting with a married woman (McDormand). That woman’s daughter goes missing as well, and as it turns out, she’s run off with the orphan because they’re both “troubled youths.” They plan to live together, alone in the wilderness — the kind of plan only a couple of twelve-year-olds could believe in and execute half-successfully.

If you’ve seen the trailer for Moonrise Kingdom, that’s unfortunate, because then the first half of the film drags a bit, given that the trailer spoils the plot beat-by-beat and also a lot of enchanting surprises from the script. Anderson’s movies aren’t much more emotionally complex than a movie trailer anyway, so when all the best gags are given away, it does the extended film no favors. But despite that skilled ensemble of adults, the young romance is Moonrise Kingdom‘s shining star, even though it often deviates to linger on other, marginally less-compelling subplots. What McDormand and Willis’ affair adds to this story, I don’t know, except maybe providing Murray a reason to be so mopey. It’s telling that the only romance Anderson ever seems to get quite right is puppy love. He simply doesn’t have the stomach for real, complicated, adult emotions. Blue Valentine this is not.

I didn’t love every quirky touch of Moonrise Kingdom, particularly the outlandish third act and too-tidy resolution. Anderson sometimes gets lost in the visuals and broad strokes of his ideas, and emotionally, the film feels more like an outline than a nuanced screenplay. We’re almost never invited to feel what the characters are feeling, and when we do, it’s usually only thanks to the music. But maybe we’ve gotten to the point where we all know what to expect from a Wes Anderson movie, and we can choose to take or leave it. (Except the two women who got up and left midway through my showing — did they not see the trailer and know what they were in for? Or did they see the trailer, and realize that they’d basically already seen the movie?)

McDormand, Willis, and Murray are all fine, but their characters are too one-note to connect to; it’s like they were imported from more serious adult movie, then left stranded without the character development and screen time to pull it off. I was a bigger fan of Tilda Swinton as a character referred to always as “Social Services” and goody-goody, by-the-book Norton leading the ridiculously stalwart Khaki Scouts, including a young redhead nicknamed Redford. The Blue Lagoon-lite love story between Sam and Suzy is also surprisingly touching when it wants to be (which isn’t that often), and the soundtrack is simply sublime. Moonrise Kingdom didn’t convert me into a die-hard Anderson fan, but it proved that there’s still a fair amount of charm left at the bottom of the barrel he’s been scraping. And perhaps that’s enough.

The buzz surrounding Ridley Scott’s Prometheus caused me to check out another star-studded ensemble that combines the serious and the ridiculous in more or less equal measure. That would be Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi flop Sunshine, which grossed less than $4 million domestically. Most of the cast is better-known now than they were then — The Avengers‘ Chris Evans, Bridesmaids‘ Rose Byrne, plus Mark Strong, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, and Cillian Murphy, reuniting with his 28 Days Later auteur. Like Prometheus, the story involves another questionable voyage into space with lofty goals and an ill-conceived name for a vessel — here, a mission to reignite a dying sun in a ship called Icarus. Doesn’t that sound like it might just as easily be the plot of a Wes Anderson movie? The title Moonrise Kingdom would be just as apt. And like Prometheus, Sunshine is all tense and moody at the start, and then a big, confusing monster mash by the end.

Come to think of it, Danny Boyle often has this problem with endings. In The Beach and 28 Days Later, he lets style replace substance in the final act, using flashy camera work that distracts us from emotionally connecting with the narrative. Never is that more true than here, which is a shame, because for two-thirds of the film you’d think Sunshine might very well be a sci-fi classic. The characters are curiously well-drawn for the genre as we get to know and truly care about each of the scientists on board; there’s a palpable dread that hangs in the air as it becomes less and less likely that this crew will return to planet Earth. And will their mission to revive the sun succeed, at least? Unlike in most high-concept sci-fi flicks, the answer is not a given “yes.”

I won’t dwell on the film’s final act too much; I had fewer problems with it story-wise than with the way Boyle films it — kind of like he’s strapped the camera to a bowling ball and smeared it with Vaseline. Is he trying to be Hitchcockian, or merely making up for the limitations of a certain character’s costume and makeup? Either way, it doesn’t work. Sunshine is worth a look, and overall, still comes together more coherently than Prometheus, because thematically, it’s truly haunting. (Whereas Prometheus ends up being full of hot air.) And as with Wes Anderson, slightly subpar work from a master is still better than most of what you’ll get from anyone else.

Sunshine: Definitely won’t make you happy when skies are gray. But it’s smart and tense and fun (for two-thirds of the way, at least).

Moonrise Kingdom: Middle-of-the-road Anderson. Which is still pretty good.

Thoughts?

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