I really wanted to like this film. I respect Wes Anderson and his distinctive voice as a writer-director (Rushmore is one of my favorite films of the 1990s), but this latest endeavor is so precious and self-aware that it nearly smothers itself. He’s been heading in this direction for a while, as evidenced by The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, both of which had inspired ideas scattered within them. Moonrise Kingdom is more frustrating than either of those pictures because it deals with two youthful misfits and ought to win our hearts. But in his crucial casting of the young leads, and in his overall tone, Anderson builds a wall around these kids, and that kept me at an emotional distance.
Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward play lonely young eccentrics who meet by chance in 1965 and plan to run away together on the New England coastal island where she lives. This causes consternation on the part of Gilman’s scout leader, played by Edward Norton, Hayward’s oddball parents, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray, and the local police chief, Bruce Willis. Their lives are interconnected in this small community, even more so as the search for the two runaways continues. As it happens, the frustrated and largely incompetent adults seem less mature than the boy and girl who, for all their peccadilloes, are genuine soul mates.
I wish I liked the two young actors better; it certainly isn’t their fault, but warmth is not Anderson’s strongest suit and he doesn’t allow them to win us over as, ironically, a more conventional Hollywood director might. The grownups, playing their often-buffoonish roles in deadpan style, are amusing and bring much-needed appeal to the proceedings.
The central idea by Anderson and his writing partner Roman Coppola has promise, but Moonrise Kingdom is self-consciously clever to a fault. The sheer amount of detail—in the costuming, production design, choice of music (a lot of Benjamin Britten) and camera moves—is overwhelming. Colleagues of the director frequently praise him for “knowing what he wants,” which is meant as a compliment, but obsessive single-mindedness is not always a good thing. Apparently the scouts’ pup tents were made expressly for the film by a firm that replicated a style and fabric that would have been used in 1965. Does that authenticity add an ounce of emotional resonance to the movie? I think not.
I can’t ignore, or disparage, the sheer originality of Moonrise Kingdom, from its peculiar characters to their peculiar homes. But I wish I felt something more.