Wes Anderson's Finest Hour (Or Two)

For years, Wes Anderson’s creative eccentricities were born and bred on the page. His fondness for all things quaint and odd and inimitably fashionable made the transition from words to moving pictures with relatively little fuss. Anderson’s characters have always popped off the screen, but in films such as “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” this was mostly a result of how well they were drawn in the writing stage. In the years since, Anderson has developed an increasingly astute visual eye, from the deliberate production design behind “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” (“Cousteau-chic,” as it were) to the rich color scheme that inhabited 2007’s “The Darjeeling Limited.” The latter might have been his weakest screenplay to date, but its visual flair signaled the arrival of Wes Anderson, the director. “Moonrise Kingdom” is the best of both worlds, and it’s the best evidence yet that Anderson is a creative force to be reckoned with.

“Moonrise Kingdom” is an adolescent love story, not so much about love as it is about adolescence. Jared Gilman stars as an orphan, Sam, who runs away from Scout Camp to be with his girlfriend-by-default, Suzy (Kara Hayward). Both are outcasts, shunned by their peers. Whether they long for adulthood because they don’t fit in, or they don’t fit in because they long for adulthood, each of them is broken in their own way. Kara’s parents, Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), do not understand their daughter, and she deeply resents their detachment. Their marriage is on the rocks and this romantic paralysis leaves Kara and her brothers to fend for themselves. That adolescence is the most difficult time in a child’s life is immaterial to Walt and Laura.

Sam is without the burden of parents, but this leaves him as aimless and incredulous as the Scout Master (Edward Norton) whose care he’s in. The connection between Sam and Suzy is more about circumstance than love, but it’s obvious, amidst the awkwardness of emotions, that there’s a mutual understanding between the two. They think of themselves as grown-ups because they’ve been forced into that role by the authority figures (or lack thereof) in their lives.

Bruce Willis plays a worn down, loner New England cop (Captain Sharp), who is the surprising centerpiece of the ensemble. His character represents the gap between adolescence and middle age, in that he’s as lost as Sam and Suzy, but with fewer excuses. He has no family, a dubious relationship with Suzy’s mother, he lives in a trailer, and his job entails protecting an island whose prime inhabitants are Khaki Scouts. All of the actors do good work, but Norton and Willis in particular, as Sam’s caregivers, really shine.

The most intelligent thing that Wes Anderson does with these characters is keeping their lines succinct and their interactions uncomfortable. The efficacy of the drama comes from Anderson avoiding his usual quick-wittedness, and the film is much better for it. The people that inhabit this world are more grounded than any Anderson has ever written, and despite a few fantastical elements, “Moonrise Kingdom” remains unwavering in its dedication to reciprocity between its characters and the audience.

The visual style on display is as distinct as anything you’ll see out of Hollywood, no matter the budget, and the camera moves with a starkness that will make you wish more filmmakers would abandon the quick cut. From wardrobe to set design, every department adds to the necessary atmosphere for this dream-like period piece. It isn’t a world we’ve seen onscreen before, and it is entirely enchanting.

This is Wes Anderson’s crowning achievement to this point, and it’s hard to imagine any other working director fulfilling his or her vision so completely this year. This is the work of an auteur – confident, but understated; beautiful, but heartbreaking; intoxicating, but sobering. “Moonrise Kingdom” might be impossible to follow up, but if anyone is up to the task, it’s Wes Anderson and his eminently talented circle of friends.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Studio: Focus Features
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriter: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Starring: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and smoking)