For well over a decade, writer-director Wes Anderson has faced criticism of his films being fussily repetitive. Though his new film Moonrise Kingdom is nothing if not fussy, it’s Anderson’s freshest, breeziest work since the high-water mark of 1998’s Rushmore.
Moonrise Kingdom tells of a pair of troubled and gifted twelve-year-olds who, in 1965, elope into the wild of New Penzance Island (a fictional New England setting). Orphan and “Khaki Scout” Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) ditches his troop and meets up with fellow runaway Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who can no longer stand claustrophobic life with father (Bill Murray) and mother (Frances McDormand).
The Bishops’ frayed marriage retains a certain coziness—both lawyers, they call each other “counselor”—but McDormand’s Laura is carrying on with local policeman Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Sharp teams up with Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) to coordinate the search and rescue effort, complicated by a coming storm and the equally threatening promised arrival of the embodiment of Social Services (Tilda Swinton in fearful mode).
Other than Anderson’s own oeuvre, Moonrise Kingdom best recalls Harold and Maude as an offbeat romance of two plain-spoken lovers against the world. (He: “I’m on your side.” She: “I know.”) Anderson contrasts the simplicity of young love with the adults’ insistence of complicating everything. “We’re in love,” says Suzy. “We just want to be together. What’s wrong with that?” Admittedly, the friendless children have shown violent tendencies, but they pacify each other, as long as no one’s trying to keep them apart.
The script by Anderson and Roman Coppola allows none of the plot elements to spin out of control, and the director keeps it short and sweet. The ’60s setting lends itself to Anderson’s obsessiveness of detail (from Sam’s coonskin cap and corncob pipe to Suzy’s collection of purloined library books), and there’s plenty of amusement in the movements of the well-armed Troop 55, who eventually make their way to the Regional Hullaballoo at Fort Lebanon (finding there Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel). The joyless scouts and melancholy adults—in, pardon the pun, uniformly pleasing performances—learn to ditch their impassivity and embrace the life spirit of Sam and Suzy.
Anderson gets in the spirit as well. Stealing from his childhood memories, he incorporates a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde to complement the film’s form (fugue) and function (weathering a literal and figurative storm). The soundtrack also playfully incorporates Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (stick around for the credits) as well as lonesome Hank Williams tunes to accompany the adults.
So if Anderson’s carefully regulated compositions and dollhouse-styled production design send you climbing up the walls, keep your distance. But this time, the filmmaker isn’t too clever by half: he’s just clever enough. And Moonrise Kingdom’s heartfelt search and rescue of a feel-good result provides a perfect, even musical counterpoint to its regimented summer camp.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]