The secret of Wes Anderson’s movies is that they deliberately tell superficial stories about hideously shallow people in the most visually inventive way. Truffaut famously praised Hitchcock for shooting scenes of murder like scenes of love. Anderson shoots movies of Adam Sandler as if they were movies of Truffaut. I haven’t a clue what Anderson wants to say about young love in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), about a pair of 1960s preteens who run away from home together on a New England island, but I know it looks terrific, sounds fantastic and feels like something. The fact that, like all of his movies, it is ultimately an Easter egg, all painted and elaborate but fragile and empty, bothers many. I am not one of them. Sail on, Wes Anderson, on your resplendent schooner in water eighteen inches deep.
We are on the Island of New Penzance. It is 1965 and a storm is coming, says the local narrator (Bob Balaban). On one side of the island live the Bishops, Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), lawyers who sleep in separate beds and call each other Counselor. They have a book titled Coping with a Very Troubled Child to help them raise Suzy (Kara Hayward), who has the quick temper that accompanies her red hair and was the raven in a local production of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde until an outburst downgraded her to a mere bluejay. She is ubiquitously looking into binoculars and has a favorite pair of left-handed scissors used for both cutting paper and stabbing.
On the other side of the island is Camp Ivanhoe, base of Troop 55 of the Khaki Scouts under the leadership of Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), who, when asked what his normal job is, reveals he is a math teacher but then quickly reconsiders and says he’s a scout master who teaches math on the side. One morning it is discovered that one of Troop 55’s least popular members, Sam (Jared Gilman), has escaped. “Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop!” exclaims Ward after he comes upon the hilariously unnecessary escape hole Sam has cut into his tent. From there the search is on, headed by Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) of the police department, who is under pressure from a woman who refers to herself only as Social Services (Tilda Swinton) to find the parentless boy and under pressure from the Bishops when it turns out that Suzy has had a long romantic correspondence with Sam and they have run off together.
The rest of the story involves the storm, a rival troop of Khaki Scouts, apprehensions, rescues, affairs, marriages, lightning strikes and a lot of Britten’s music. The narrative has the feel of a tale made up by a child; it becomes unglued a little and grows more and more fantastic. Not better necessarily, just hurried toward a resolution. Anderson’s script, written with Roman Coppola, is full of his trademark one-liners and quirky revelations, but the structure gets less attention so the last act feels undercooked. Normally, that would be dangerous to a movie, but Anderson is such a striking visualist that it nearly doesn’t matter.
Here his camera spends a lot of time in successive ninety-degree pans or long tracking shots. No working director has a better sense of drawing the audience’s eye, most of which is achieved through composition and the design of the elements he wants to emphasize. Here we notice a blue record player against an off-white cabinet or the framed photograph of an unexpected love interest on the desk of an unlikely character. The camera makes its presence known when it has to but doesn’t distract.
Anderson is an easy storyteller. He’s also particularly difficult to analyze. I know I liked Moonrise Kingdom but upon reflection it’s hard to articulate why. Surely it can’t be just pitch-perfect costuming and art direction. Yet, who are these people in the movie? The adults act like children; any real issues they may have remain unresolved and uninvestigated, and at the center of our story are two kids who we hardly believe are really in love and who can both spend time being wholly unlikable. But the movie works: it’s light, it’s sweet, it’s nostalgic without being sentimental. It has no more to say than a fortune cookie, but it’s one of those fortune cookies dipped in chocolate that are so good.
The two lovebirds are extraordinarily well-played by Gilman and Hayward, and the movie is frank enough to have them wander stupidly into real danger of both the physical and sexual variety. They share a French kiss that I imagine looks like many people’s first French kisses: bad. I was often reminded of Malick’s Badlands as the two set up camp and avoid their pursuers. The movie is whimsical but it doesn’t shy away from the fact that someone could potentially get very hurt.
When Suzy tells Sam she sometimes wishes she could have been an orphan like he is, because most of the heroes in her books are, he tells her, “I love you, but you have no idea what you are talking about,” echoing the sentiments of anyone who went through the “romance” of a rudderless childhood. “I love you too,” she says, delighted. It’s a good exchange and underlines the nature of their puppy love as well as the movie’s avoidance of what could potentially be meaningful discovery.
Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t have time for depth; it’s dressed too well. Even Anderson’s aping of Truffaut is on a surface level. Yes, he mimics the great director’s use of classical music, interesting titling, and his love of letters, but it doesn’t have the gravitas. That doesn’t bother me because I don’t think it’s interested in weight. Anderson is more than content being the cleverest kid in art school who’s getting Cs from the teachers but is cutting up his classmates with the cartoons in his notebook.