By Linc Leifeste | May 25, 2012
Director: Wes Anderson
Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Jason Schwartzman, Bob Balaban
I’ve was introduced to the work of Wes Anderson by my older brother back in 1997 when he insisted that I watch Bottle Rocket. It was love at first viewing. A couple of years later I tagged along with my brother to the Austin stop of the 1999 Rushmore bus tour before screening the film at the long gone Arbor 7 theater with Anderson and Jason Schwartzman in attendance. A couple of years later there were multiple viewings of The Royal Tenenbaums at the now defunct Dobie Theater. Around the time of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I have fond memories of a first (almost) date with what would later become my wife at the original (and now a distant memory) Colorado Street Alamo Drafthouse Cinema to screen Bottle Rocket with Kumar (Kumar Pallana) in attendance. It was the happiness I felt after that screening of Bottle Rocket on the big screen, compared to the cold indifference that Life Aquatic left me with, that made me realize my long-running love affair with Wes Anderson was growing stale.
A common complaint against Anderson is that he’s something of a one-trick pony, that he’s making the same movie over and over with slight variations, with each film becoming ever more Andersonian and self-referential, almost to the point of parody. And there’s definitely something to that; just going through my mental list of Austin theaters I’ve seen Anderson films in that are no longer in existence makes me wonder if the city I live in hasn’t grown and developed (not necessarily for the better) more than Anderson has over the years. On a side note, another interesting argument is that Owen Wilson’s writing was essential to the genius of Anderson’s early work. Whatever the explanation, I found myself less smitten with each Anderson film (which doesn’t mean that every Wes Anderson film still wouldn’t have made my year end list). Sure, I found The Darjeeling Limited to be a slight rebound from Life Aquatic but still not in the same ballpark as Anderson’s initial trifecta of films.
But for me, Anderson’s first foray into animated film-making with 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox felt like a game-changer. It was every bit a Wes Anderson film but still felt completely fresh to me, the first of his films since Tenenbaums to have me walking out of the theater with that old joyous feeling. So it was with much anticipation that I entered the theater to see Moonrise Kingdom. And while the Anderson magic wasn’t at Bottle Rocket levels, for example not quite able to bring escape from the intense pain I was in from the strep throat my four year old son had gifted me with, this very typically enigmatic Andersonian film still managed to feel fairly fresh.
It is the summer of 1965 and Sam (Jared Gilman) has snuck away from his Khaki Scout camp on the fictional New England coastal island of New Penzance for a prearranged meeting with his young love Suzy (Kara Hayward), who has run away from her family and home. The two twelve-year-olds are soon being hunted by a range of characters including Suzy’s parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and eager Khaki Scout Master Ward (Ed Norton Jr.) along with his troop of aggressive and well-armed Khaki Scouts who never thought much of young Sam.
In typical Wes Anderson fashion, the story doesn’t matter nearly as much as the aesthetic. Anderson himself has said of the film that he was trying to capture the sensation of falling in love at twelve years of age and the powerful “fantasy world” feelings that come along with it. Whether he’s succeeded largely depends on your response to Anderson’s style of film-making. Not much happens, the characters aren’t all that plausible, but it all looks so beautiful that it’s hard to complain. I was never able to truly buy into the romance or feel fully invested in any of the to-a-fault deadpan characters (there’s not a single character in the film with the heart or depth of a Dignan or a Mr. Fox) but was still captivated by the sheer cinematic splendor in Anderson’s meticulously crafted creation.
Interestingly enough what struck me most about the film was its soundtrack, one of many components of Anderson’s film-making that has helped distinguish and define him. Whereas his first four films were scored by Mark Mothersbaugh of DEVO fame, Moonrise Kingdom marks Anderson’s second collaboration with French composer Alexandre Desplat. But the real striking departure is the move away from the pop and classic British rock of earlier soundtracks; goodbye Kinks, hello Hank Williams. That’s right; the film features no fewer than six cuts from the greatest country music artist ever. I never imagined Hank’s mournful voice and Don Helms’ cutting steel guitar being combined with Anderson’s visual magic but the combination felt familiar and fresh all at once, kind of like running into an old friend you haven’t seen in years and being able to pick up just where you’d left off.