Wes Anderson is one of those directors who, love him or hate him, has been remarkably consistent. Each film, from “Rushmore” right on down, is an artfully constructed and totally hermetic world unto itself, with flawed or absent father-figures, a closet’s worth of funky-yet-chic pop-culture knickknacks and a saucerful of heartbreak.
And yet, each work is a very delicate balancing act: His films can become rather precious, with the emphasis on style often distancing one from the emotions, and characters who appear to be speaking in quote marks. Then again, such charges of style vs. substance were leveled against the original cinema du look progenitors like Jean-Jacques Beineix and Leos Carax back in the 1980s, yet their films have clearly stood the test of time.
I’ll confess to always having had mixed feelings about Anderson, but I’ve come down firmly in his corner. Three reasons: First was his animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — somehow Anderson’s dollhouselike obsession with set design and costuming seemed to make more sense when working with puppets. Second: I read an interview with him where he seemed genuinely bewildered by all the people who thought he was always aiming for some patina of hipster cool. (Wait, you mean he wasn’t?) Third: “Moonrise Kingdom,” his latest and best, which is as mannered and art-directed as anything he’s done, but also undeniably heartfelt.
“Moonrise Kingdom,” set on a leafy New England isle in a more innocent America of 1965, plays like a nouvelle vague film as directed by Pee Wee Herman. Dweeby, bullied Boy Scout Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) goes AWOL from his troop’s weekend campground for a rendezvous with his secret flame, Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). The 12-year-olds head off for destination unknown with nothing more than their backpacks, a BB gun, a record player and a bag full of stolen library books. They wind up at a secluded cove where they swim, dance and share one of cinema’s truest first kisses. (A scene as naive and awkward as that age is, perhaps uncomfortably so for any adult viewers.)
Suzy’s squabbling parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) freak out, and together with Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and the island’s sole cop, Cpt. Sharp (Bruce Willis), organize a search party to find them. Sharp soon learns that Sam is an orphan who is less than loved by his current foster family and that his latest misbehavior will send him back into the institutional embrace of the state, as embodied by Tilda Swinton’s heartless bureaucrat. Sharp can’t help but feel sorry for the kid.
This may sound pretty heavy, but the tone of the film is breezy, occasionally cloudy. Anderson’s always had a sense of humor, but it seems like “Mr. Fox” loosened him up more to the possibility of getting a bit zany. The spaghetti western-style showdown between Sam and his Scout-troop pursuers is sheer brilliance, while Norton’s anal-retentive scoutmaster is a hoot, and there’s even a timely lightning strike worthy of Wile E. Coyote.
Cinematically, there isn’t a shot in the film that’s anything less than perfectly composed, such as when Suzy is perched atop a lighthouse, looking for Sam with her binoculars; Anderson has to place her dead center in the screen, her outfit coordinated with the lighthouse color scheme to boot. He has a thing for centered, obviously posed tableaux, of which there are dozens in “Moonrise Kingdom.”
This might just be an obsession with symmetry, but I suspect it’s a deliberate artificiality. Note that there’s a play within the film — where Sam meets Suzy — and a Benjamin Britten record played by Suzy’s brother that dissects the workings of orchestral composition. It adds to the sense that the runaways aren’t so much acting out as just acting, wanting their lives to be more dramatic, more like the adventures in the illustrated novels Suzy carries in her trunk. (And to gauge the depth of Anderson’s mad immersion in his little cinematic worlds, note that every book Suzy carries was created specifically for the film. There’s a great promo video up on YouTube that contains a few pages from each.)
One thing that isn’t remarked upon much is how compassionate Anderson’s films are, where even the most flawed characters — usually the adults: Gene Hackman’s absent patriarch in “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Olivia Williams’ fickle Miss Cross in “Rushmore” or Frances McDormand’s adulterous mom here — are treated warmly, their flaws and charms part and parcel of the same person. Now there’s something real in his films.