GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Moonrise Kingdom (USA, 2012)
Directed by Wes Anderson
Starring Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton

Auteurs are by their very nature divisive. When someone has such a strong, individual and instantly recognisable style, it is bound to generate more extreme emotional reactions than someone who has one or more feet firmly in the mainstream. It is often the case that auteurs are only truly understood and celebrated after they're dead, with Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Ken Russell all being snubbed or written off at some stage in their careers.
It is with this benefit of hindsight that we approach the work of Wes Anderson. He is unquestionably one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation, with a series of unique offerings under his belt and a glittering reputation among hard-core film fans. His talent is so on show in aspects of Moonrise Kingdom that any negative response could be written off as an inability to recognise greatness. But whether through my limitations or the film's, Moonrise Kingdom doesn't live up to its hype, being visually beautiful but too arch and distant to be engaging.
It's worth reiterating just how good Moonrise Kingdom looks. At a time when American cinema is increasingly homogeneous and visually lazy, Anderson's film looks and feels like a work of intricate, painstaking craft. He gets a perfect balance between recreating the details of a period and putting his own distinctive stamp on it, giving us buildings, landscapes and costumes that we think we recognise, but may be entirely new. While indie films are stereotyped as having grainy, washed-out colour palettes, Anderson's film is full of rich spring and summer tones, with pinks and yellow so bright and fulsome you'd swear they were made out of marzipan.
The story of Moonrise Kingdom reflects its period setting of the mid-1960s very well. It draws on the deep well of stories about lovers running away and resists situating it in the counter-culture movements that were sweeping America at the same time. There is an endearing innocence to both the film and its central protagonists, who are deeply in love without really knowing what love is or what it entails in the long run.
The disappearance of the two children and the attempts to get them back is an interesting way of reflecting the fears of 1960s parents towards their children. The innocence of their relationship is counterpointed by the feeling of a community being rent asunder, with all the locals' dirty secrets and shortcomings being thrust out into the open. Unlike many 1960s and 1970s films which use children as a symbol or agent of evil, the central characters in Moonrise Kingdom are completely well-meaning, only resorting to violence to defend what they care about, and with the adults seeming a whole lot more screwed up.
There are a number of lovely moments in the film which are funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. A
great deal of the humour comes from pockets of black comedy which move the film from Badlands to Bonnie and Clyde, such as the scene where a scout loses his kidney in a fight with Sam. Other times it is a good visual joke, like the papier maché replica of Suzy left in her bed by the scouts. Some of the supporting cast are also funny just for how bizarre they are, the best example being Tilda Swinton's uptight Social Services (yes, that's her actual name).
Much like Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson does have a knack of getting actors to give performances that no-one would have expected from them. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are both great in their first screen roles, with the latter bearing a striking resemblance to Scarlett Johannson in certain scenes. Bill Murray often plays the downbeat grump in his later work, but here he gets to let rip with a number of terrific tantrums counterpointed by middle-aged mumbling. Bruce Willis brings a more humanistic quality to his downbeat, brow-beaten style of character, being closer to his work in Twelve Monkeys but with relational rather than existential angst. And Edward Norton, so often a tough and aggressive screen presence, completely convinces at the utterly inept but ultimately heroic scout master.
So far Moonrise Kingdom is shaping up to a triumph of craft and character, being yet another feather in Anderson's ever-growing cap. But for all his hard work up to this point, and all the goodwill we have towards him, the film has a number of problems which ultimately tarnish the end result. To be specific, there are a number of small problems which emanate from one really big problem. And that big problem is: we just don't care about anyone on screen.
There is a fundamental difference in drama between empathy and sympathy. In order for a drama to be fully compelling, it is not enough for us just to understand how the characters function on a technical level; we have to want good things to happen to them to such an extent that we invest in them emotionally. The problem is that Anderson doesn't want us to invest in his characters: he wants us to study them and be amused by them, but he gives no real incentive to actually like them.
As much as I praised Anderson as a craftsman, this feeling is exacerbated by the way and the extent to which the film feels 'designed' As good and as charismatic as the performers are, there is a feeling of artifice to the whole proceedings, as though they were figures in a giant snow globe that Anderson is shaking up and asking us to watch. The recreation of the period isn't warm and nostalgic like you would expect for such a heart-warming story: it feels too hermetically sealed, too perfect to be anything other than a thought experiment whose participants are to be observed.
As distinctive and memorable as Anderson's characters are, they are also underwritten insofar as they could be reduced down to a single quirk or joke each. Frances McDormand's mother has only one distinctive feature - using a megaphone to call her children - and the film doesn't develop her alleged affair into something deep and meaningful. Harvey Keitel is enjoyable as the brash Commander Pierce, but beyond playing to our expectations and giving us a quick laugh at his pomposity, there's not a lot else to him. All the characters are written with a sense of ironic detachment, with Anderson and Roman Coppola being greatly amused by their quirks but not going the extra mile to turn the quirks into something more developed.
Even if we overlook the characters, there are other problems with Moonrise Kingdom which also betray a shortfall in effort expended. The film skims over a lot of potentially interesting subtexts that could have really cemented it as something more than just a quirky story of lovers on the run. There are numerous instances of Biblical imagery in the film, with the main characters meeting at a production of Noah's Flood and the film's climax involving a terrible storm (at a push, you could even view the lovers as Adam and Eve). All the imagery is there but Anderson either isn't aware of it or isn't interested in unleashing its full potential.
The same goes for the theme of the adults in the town being more screwed up than their children. It's floated occasionally in some of the quieter moments, where Anderson gives us lingering close-ups of characters looking sadly into middle distance. But there is less attempt than you might expect to tie the adults' predicament to the emotional development of their children, until the film pulls an unconvincing ending out of nowhere and everything goes back to square one. While you can applaud Anderson for not being predictable, the film would have had much more impact if it ended with Sam being struck by lightning and then not surviving. Certainly that would have felt less clunky than all the various storylines colliding in the church, like the ending of O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Moonrise Kingdom is a decent but frustrating effort from Anderson, displaying all that is good and bad about his style of film-making. His distinctive visual style and approach to characters demands to be celebrated, but at the same time there is far too much detachment from said characters for the film to work. Throw in the various missed opportunities in the narrative and you have a film which promises much but delivers on disappointingly little. Anderson's many fans will be satisfied, but newcomers to his work should start elsewhere.