A word like “enchanting” was made for reviews of Wes Anderson films. So were words like “quirky,” “disarming,” and “meticulous.” Which is to say it is very easy to spot a Wes Anderson film and very difficult to be surprised by one. Here is what you can count on: you will hear a great indie-pop soundtrack. You will see characters dealing with father-son issues. You will see Bill Murray and (probably) Jason Schwartzman. You will be required to feel nostalgic about your youth. There is nothing categorically wrong with a director having a singular style and recurring themes; we connect emotionally with auteurs in part by recognizing their idiosyncrasies. But the filmmaker’s relationship to those themes need to grow and expand.
Over the past two decades, Wes Anderson has eschewed growth and instead has become lost in those details. This problem, which once marred but did not ruin his films, has metastasized into full-blown oppression. Those words with which his films have become synonymous – “quirky” and “disarming” – now exist only in quotation marks and are bereft of meaning, much like the characters in his films. There is simply no place for the audience – or the actors – in his stories. Anderson is playing with a doll house, and I’m glad he and his repertory are having such a good time – but I don’t know where we fit in.
Much like in Anderson’s best film, “Rushmore,” young love is contrasted with the disillusionment of adulthood in “Moonrise Kingdom.” As the film opens, twelve-year-olds Sam and Suzy, played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, have run away from home with no particular plan but to escape. Sam is running away from the Khaki Scouts (a Boy Scouts facsimile), and Suzy is seeking refuge from her strange but seemingly innocuous parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). It would all be a bit flat except for an added bit of emotional intrigue: Sam is an orphan, and his foster parents have decided that they do not want him back.
All of which should make for a story about first love that is either sweet or dark or at least engaging, but there is no engagement because nothing in the film suggests that any of these characters actually exist. The grown-ups in particular are given no characterization, back story, or motivation. In addition to Suzy’s parents, we spend time with the local police chief (Bruce Willis) and the Scout Master (Edward Norton) who are trying to find the children, and an evil lady from Social Services (Tilda Swinton), who is promising a trip to the orphanage and shock treatment once Sam is located. Anderson seems to enjoy dressing up his favorite actors in funny clothes and giving them silly things to say, like “Jiminy Cricket, he flew the coop,” but without delving into who these characters actually are, it adds up only to an exercise in quirkiness.
Still, Anderson deserves a lot of credit for his unique visual style. Each shot of the film looks like it exists in a pop-up book, which, of course, evokes the nostalgia that is always Anderson’s true subject. But nostalgia is distancing; in fact, it requires distance, and it is not an effective way to engage an audience. What we need is a contrast. Allow me to explain.
Anderson’s first two films, “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” featured characters, Dignan and Max Fischer, respectively, who lived life like a fantasy. Each of them behaved as if they were the hero in their own little movie, but the people around them did not reflect that world, and in that contrast lay both the comedy and the drama, the innocence and the sadness, of their delusions. But in each of Anderson’s subsequent films, starting with “The Royal Tenenbaums,” those fantasies have expanded to fill out the entire frame. The world on screen bears no reflection of reality. While this is not always a recipe for poor filmmaking, you still have to give the audience a fairly firm entry point into the story. Nobody would think that “The Avengers” reflects reality, but the characters, particularly Tony Stark, are grounded enough that it works. The characters in “Moonrise Kingdom” are floating around in an alternate dimension, and I spent much of the film’s 97 minutes trying to grab onto them, even if only for a moment.
Part of Anderson’s recent failures is due to his past success. When a filmmaker has a strong following, he is no longer accountable to reality. Because of his early success, Anderson has carte blanche to create whatever film he wants. If people don’t see “Moonrise Kingdom” in the theater, the film’s producers can be sure that his devotees will buy it on DVD. It helps that his films are all modestly budgeted (this is probably because all the props seem to have been bought in thrift stores), and actors are willing to take pay cuts to work for him. Like a child whose fantasies have been encouraged by parents and teachers, Anderson has continued to develop those imaginary worlds but lost his grip on reality.
Sometimes, filmmakers with idiosyncratic styles do better when they work off of someone else’s story or screenplay. His oddness would play better in small doses or merged with a more conventional screenplay. For example, Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” adapted from the Roald Dahl children’s novel, was considered by many to be his best work in years because Anderson was forced to stay true to the beloved source material.
Much like Mr. Fox, Anderson is digging himself further into the ground and creating a new universe for him and his friends to play in. The problem, which he seems to have no interest in fixing, is that there is not a lot of room down there for the rest of us. The world he creates in “Moonrise Kingdom” is a piece of art that deserves to be viewed, but the lack of characterization keeps us separated, as if behind glass, searching for meaning in an emotionally blank canvas.