Friday, July 13, 2012

Beyond Precious: Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom

Having just finished teaching a course on the great American cinema of the ‘70s, and spending weeks immersed in fine films by directors at their creative peaks (Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and many others), it was something of a rude jolt to be brought back to earth having to deal with the generally underwhelming current crop of American directors. While Spielberg, De Palma and Scorsese are still around and often doing good work – creatively Coppola is missing in action – there are only a handful of relevant moviemakers (David Fincher, Curtis Hanson) from the next generation who make movies that speak to the way we live today. And when you’ve tasted the highs of The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Nashville or Shampoo, why would you want to make time for the enervated films of Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Meek’s Cutoff), the scattershot ones of Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) or the contemptuous movies of Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Life During Wartime)? But of all the annoying/irritating minor talents being unduly praised to the skies, usually only by certain film critics, none is likely more of a chore to sit through than Wes Anderson. His latest movie, Moonrise Kingdom, is really more of the same: a hermetic, arid, mindless film that defies you to truly care about anything that’s happening on screen.

If you had to pick one word to define his films, such as Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tanenbaums (2001) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), it would be precious. Not in the very valuable meaning of the word, but in the affectedly dainty or over-refined definition. With the exception of his debut movie, the sweet, likeable Bottle Rocket (1996), Anderson’s films are enshrined baubles that may look pretty – he doesn’t stint on the art direction – but beyond surface appearances have little of value on offer.

If Moonrise Kingdom is about anything – and it barely is – it’s a paean to lost innocence. Unfortunately, that worthy theme is laid on with a trowel by the filmmaker, undone by its lackadaisical pace – there’s almost no forward momentum in the movie – and depicted in a decidedly voyeuristic fashion.  The putative lovers are two 12 year olds, nerdy orphan Sam Shakursky (Jared Gilman) and emotionally distraught Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). When he disappears from his scout troop, which is led by an anal-retentive scoutmaster (Edward Norton), and she runs away from her turbulent home life, the adults in the community embark on a frantic hunt for the children, leading to all sorts of (banal) revelations about themselves, the kids and life itself.

Filmmaker Wes Anderson
In a nutshell, Moonrise Kingdom, which was co-written by Anderson and Roman Coppola, is vapid and moronic. The adults are idiots; the kids precociously, but not believably, wise; and the world Anderson likes to portray is unrecognizable. People do not speak or behave in any believable manner in his films – they’re laconic to a ridiculous degree – and are prone to reading magazines called Indian Corn or belonging to groups like The Khaki Scouts of North America, titles which are meant to be ironic commentaries but which only betray Anderon's undue fondness for obvious quirky jokes that go nowhere at all. This emperor really has no clothes. 

Even setting the film, as Anderson does, in 1965 is done for no discernible reason I can see as it could have easily been set in 1975 or 1985 or even today, though, I guess, the lack of cell phones and the like would have been problematic for something set in our present. But Anderson isn’t really saying anything significant about America, or its culture, or attitudes in his movies. So its time frame is immaterial, except, perhaps showing up the citizens of his country for a bunch of selfish, addled fools who behave in a like-minded manner. The actors in his films therefore fare very badly. Like the Coen brothers who seemingly delight in making charismatic movie star George Clooney look buffoonish in films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading, Anderson does the same, especially to Bill Murray, the charmer from Groundhog Day, and the riveting serious actor from Lost in Translation. In Anderson’s movies, specifically Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, Murray is cast as an overbearing jerk, with the added bonus of being cuckolded by his wife (Frances McDormand, dowdy to a fault) in the latter. The rest of the equally talented cast, including Norton; Bruce Willis as a doofus cop involved with McDormand’s character; and Tilda Swinton as Social Services (yup, that’s what she’s called), a Cruella De Ville sort who wants to put Sam in a juvenile facility, couldn’t possibly make anything compelling out of their ridiculous characters. Anderson continually demonstrates that he doesn't give a damn about rendering them with any real depth or compassion. (Harvey Keitel’s scoutmaster has an uncredited cameo, which makes sense as I wouldn’t want to advertise my involvement in such a dumb movie either.) Fortunately, the talentless and obnoxious Jason Schwartzman, who usually has bigger parts in Anderson’s movies, pops up only briefly late in the film, making it harder for him to stink up the joint. It beats me what Bob Balaban is doing in the movie as an inappropriately dressed narrator who acts like he’s in a mock documentary. I guess it’s some idea of humour on Anderson’s part, I suppose, though labelling Moonrise Kingdom as a comedy-drama is a gross misnomer as both those elements are decidedly absent from this still-born picture.

As for the kids, I couldn’t tell you whether they have any acting abilities or not – they’re making their film debuts in Moonrise Kingdom – as they’re really just essaying cardboard cutouts, except when it comes to their budding sexuality. And that’s a disturbing aspect of the film. The script has Sam send nude drawings to Suzy, the two lounging about in their underwear, and then a scene wherein Sam and Suzy French kiss while he feels her up. That’s pretty creepy and voyeuristic considering the kids were the age they play when they made the movie, and are shot in loving close-ups by the director. I have no doubt Anderson would claim it’s all innocent fun. It’s not.

Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton and Bruce Willis in Moonrise Kingdom

In any case, Anderson displays such a heavy hand with his ‘comedy’ that he clearly displays no trust in his audience’s intelligence. The movie is rife with metaphor alerts, none more so than when a devastating flood – with shades of the raining frogs in P. T. Anderson’s equally atrocious Magnolia – comes along to cleanse the dirty adult world of its sins and vices, ones that threaten the ‘pristine’ innocent (there’s that word again) haven, called Moonrise Kingdom, where Sam and Suzy hide out. That metaphor first makes its appearance when the kids meet while performing in Noyes Fluddle (Noah’s Flood), Benjamin Britten’s expansive 1957 opera, an implausible, to say the least, production to emanate from conservative small-town America. But if movies could be washed away by floods, I’d certainly pick this one to go under the waves. (Usually Anderson’s inventive, wide-ranging soundtracks are the only good thing about his films, but this one, heavy on the Britten and Hank Williams with contributions from Mozart, Schubert and Saint-Saens, is decidedly weak.) Another obvious signpost for the illiterate or simple-minded filmgoer is naming the house where Suzy lives Summer’s End – wow that’s deep! – yet another belaboring of the lost innocence theme.

The problem with all this is that so many people buy into this claptrap – I’m not surprised the critical establishment has fallen for Anderson’s bunk, they’ve long since shown a willingness to accept any ‘vision’ from a filmmaker they deem original, such as Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, even if the movie or moviemaker isn’t any good – but so many younger film buffs love Anderson, too. Likely they feel they can relate to Anderson’s self-consciously clever and ironic tone poems – (it’s also why the glib Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is popular with that demographic) – but it may also be because they don’t have any true appreciation for film history, or for really gifted and deep filmmakers, such as the ones mentioned at the start, who made movies with substance and heft and imagination.

Judi Dench and Celia Imrie in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
I’m not letting seniors off the hook either; they mostly, in my experience, don’t much like Anderson’s films, generally finding them too weird and off-putting, but they have fallen in love with similarly unworthy films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, an utterly predictable drama about a group of British senior citizens who find themselves when they travel abroad, and end up living together in a dilapidated, decaying hotel in India. I had expected the movie’s A-level cast – Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy etc. – to somehow surmount what I feared (and was right) would be a predictable storyline – but this film was so devoid of freshness and surprises, and chock full of syrupy homilies and life lessons, that there was little they could do to rise above the banal proceedings. (I understand that there are relatively few portrayals of elderly people in the movies, which is why seniors are responding so positively to the film but it doesn't change the fact that they're accepting a mediocre substitute for an authentic, honest movie.) Thus fans of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel applaud that film at the end, acolytes of Moonrise Kingdom sing its praises, and those discerning moviegoers who want neither formulaic mainstream films, nor pretentious art house fare are squeezed out of the equation.

Perhaps Moonrise Kingdom should have had another name. The one it has now promises something magical, but the movie, though ostensibly set in Rhode Island, ought really be labeled as a product (and that’s the right adjective for this movie) Made in Andersonville, an inhospitable, dreary and empty island where time flows very slowly and where nothing meaningful or memorable ever happens. It’s not to my taste, nor maybe yours, but so many visitors love the place. To each his own, but the funny, truly ironic thing is that the Wikipedia bio on Anderson lists his formative cinematic influences as Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows), Louis Malle (Lacombe Lucien), Satyajit Ray (The Apu Trilogy), John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) and Hal Ashby (The Last Detail), directors whose best work is the complete opposite of what Anderson churns out: humane, thoughtful, touching and deeply felt films about real people. I’d recommend you try any number of films by these filmmakers instead of Anderson’s latest opus, but I’d also suggest he might take a look at those moviemakers again. Maybe this time he’ll actually learn something from them and in the future  spare us the types of movies he’s built his career on. We can only hope.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute, where he will be teaching a course on film censorship in the fall.

1 comment:

  1. The reputation of Wes Anderson as one of America's most consistently over-rated directors gets another boost with his latest exercise in stylistic posturing and forced whimsy.