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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson's eccentric summer camp

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Since releasing Rushmore in 1998, director Wes Anderson has refined a peculiar sensibility of whimsy with undertones of loss through films such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. He often comes close to a child's view of the world, and this has never been truer than in his latest, Moonrise Kingdom. The setting is the make-believe New England island of New Penzance, a name with Gilbert & Sullivan connotations, and the cultural upheaval of the time, 1965, is a barely perceptible, gauzy backdrop for the story. The protagonists are a couple of outcast 12-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), who decide to run away together from the cruel world of children and adults. Soon enough they discover love.

Their escape was carefully plotted via the U.S. Mail. Sam will be on the island for the annual Scout camp and will slip out from under the watchful eyes of the officious yet hapless Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton); meanwhile, Suzy will skedaddle from her parents' home, which resembles a life-size dollhouse in a film replete with touches that suggest a wacky '60s children's storybook (Maurice Sendak on happy pills?) come to life.

Many of the best scenes show Sam and Suzy's idyll in the woods of New Penzance, green and huge, as enveloping as childhood itself, and shot in the slightly unreal colors of the era's National Geographic magazine. Still in uniform, Sam wears a coonskin cap pulled across his forehead and shoulders a fully loaded backpack for the expedition. Suzy is a Junior Miss Jackie Kennedy in pink and white with a battery-powered turntable and her favorite Francoise Hardy record. They dance together to the jangly minor key melody, the subdued go-go beat and the melancholy French lyrics, whose emotional translation amounts to the roiling turbulence of romance. It sets the mood for a first French kiss, which they execute with some difficulty. Sex is just beyond their reach. An innocent on a journey of experience, Sam exclaims "Rats!" when something goes wrong. Alas, Suzy and Sam's illicit camp-out triggers the machinery of adult authority (and their childish helpers).

The back stories of the young romantics add a note of pathos. Sam is an orphan in an uncaring foster home and Suzy's rather neurotic, unhappy parents (Frances McDormand, Bill Murray) regard her as emotionally disturbed. Sam and Suzy are articulate, smart kids whose peers are snickering bullies; the adults in their lives range from awful to ineffectual, largely unaware that their professional and parental routines are little more than kids' games writ large. The grown-up with the clearest head is the island's police chief, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), whose own streak of melancholy is represented by the Hank Williams songs that form his own personal soundtrack. Worst of all is Social Services (Tilda Swinton), an inflexible bureaucrat who swoops onto the island on a seaplane and threatens the children with electro-shock therapy.

As with many of Anderson's films, the drollery eventually runs dry and the momentum slows down as the story's point fades to obscurity. Although situated in an intriguingly constructed world populated by colorful eccentrics, Moonrise Kingdom is somehow less than the sum of its parts. In the end, little that happens seems to matter much.
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