You don’t go see a Wes Anderson movie expecting much in the way of depth or character development—or at least, I don’t. I enter the theater or select the rental knowingly, well aware of the fact that I’m likely in for a sensory spectacle and a flat—albeit immensely charming—storyline. It’s all eye candy, soundtrack, costume and set design, meticulously stylized to the nth degree.
Moonrise Kingdom, the latest in the Wes Anderson catalog, is gorgeous and keen and funny. It stars some Hollywood greats—Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzmann, Bruce Willis—but leading the charge are two screwy kids, Suzy and Sam, played by Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman. Both troubled, possibly even deeply, after meeting and becoming pen-pals, Suzy and Sam decide to escape the angst and confusion of their home lives and run away together, creating their own little (short-lived) paradise on the far side of their island. It’s 1965 and though the sepia is of the Technicolor bent, nostalgia is very much a presence in this film.
While this makes for a compelling premise, and god knows what character analysis gems could be mined from a different director, you get to know these protagonists (and the supplemental cast members) but on the most superficial level. They all come across as caricatures. Sam is fucked up because he is an orphan; Suzy because she feels alienated, angry, and sad. It’s a one-dimensional portrayal of young, naïve, and powerful love. Even when Suzy and Sam run away and their affair blossoms no context is given for how each of them became who they are. What do we even learn about Suzy and Sam? Suzy’s depressed and packed nothing for their exodus except her cat, a box of books, and a record player. Sam is socially awkward but outfitted with survival gear (and skills). Their pre-adolescent love is awkward but genuine, their self-imposed ostracism innocent and playful. It’s more about what this all looks like and sounds like, what it feels like, than how the pieces all fit together. And maybe that’s all we need?
Maybe… but I want more. While in The Royal Tenenbaums, for instance, Anderson touched upon the family’s history and the strange personal exploits of the main characters drove the story, the subplots in Moonrise Kingdom confound and clutter. For one, Suzy’s mom (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with the local cop (Bruce Willis), who is introduced in the film when Sam runs away. Suzy’s mom and dad (Bill Murray) are both lawyers, but we don’t get much of why that’s important (although it does make it funny when they use the word “object” in sentences). Suzy’s dad is a tragic guy, but we don’t really know why. It’s implied he knows about the affair, but he doesn’t do much about it. Anderson is more concerned with the details, like the color of Suzy’s eye shadow and the tilt of Sam’s ever-present coonskin hat, than exploring how Suzy feels when she spies her mom, through binoculars, meet her lover on her bike and touch his hand before zooming off again.
As for Sam, after running away from the Khaki Scouts, little does he know he’s been rejected by his fosters parents and is being thrown back into the system, which is when Social Services emerges, played by Tilda Swinton (who calls herself and is referred to as, simply, “Social Services”). Scout master Ward (Ed Norton) is a totally endearing dude who puts the troop first and foremost, a math teacher “on the side.” What’s his story, out there with a bunch of kids all summer? The lost look in his eye and kindness of his actions implies that he has an unrequited history, and the masterful Norton dumps loads of emotion into what little he has to work with as a scripted character. So while the adults face off in their own personal and intertwining spheres, Suzy and Sam, more than once, the second time with an army of kids in tow, flee the inane parental figures that impose rules on their worlds.
For all this one-dimensional disorder, you have to assume a director as skilled and deliberate as Anderson crafted his story this way for a reason. There’s no doubt it has a lot of heart, and the simplistic nature of the characters free up space to tap into the kids’ mission. The adults aren’t bad… they’re just flawed, like all adults are, and a few end up as life-saving heroes. Suzy and Sam, of course, for their part, color in the possibilities of earnest young love.
These idiosyncratic characters, so definitive of Anderson’s work, make the film sparkle with his touch, and as intriguing and quirky as they are, when the movie ended I simply wanted to know more about them. And Anderson didn’t give me that, not even close. These are flat people with flat problems and flat interactions. Movie over.
I suppose there are other things to focus on anyway, like the music with its drum sequences and chiming child choruses, and the richly pigmented setting, with the kind of symmetrical camera shots and hide-and-seek cinematography that visually bind the story. It’s enough just to get lost in the color, in the twinkling details…. forget the human struggle. And Moonrise Kingdom isn’t about that. It’s about crafting a dream world, a world of one’s own making, and keeping it there, up on a shelf, hidden in the memory, to revisit when life feels too hard and grey. Moonrise Kingdom is like a diorama version of the real world, one built from the wonderment of childhood, one fully realized 50 years ago on a sleepy, stormy island. Who wouldn’t want to get lost in that for a while?