The hills of New England are alive with the sound of young love and Hank Williams music in Moonrise Kingdom, a sweet, charming and altogether delightful bit of whimsy from writer/director Wes Anderson. Fair warning: If you're one of those folks who hopped off the Anderson bandwagon after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou having grown somewhat weary of his familiar visual bag of tricks and poker-faced sense of humor, this movie may still not tempt you back into the fold given that it perpetuates all of his signature stylistic quirks rather than reinvents them. That's your loss though, as Moonrise is one of the director's most skillfully assembled movies and an example of how welcome his unique voice is on the contemporary cinematic landscape.
The second -- and far superior -- of two '60s period pieces opening in theaters this weekend (the other being Men in Black 3), Moonrise unfolds in a small island community in an exceptionally picturesque part of New England, where two precocious 12-year-olds, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) are feeling the first stirrings of romance. He's an orphan who escapes his unhappy life at a foster home by joining a Khaki Scout troop led by the gawky Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and she's the daughter of a large family of bookworms and classical music aficionados whose parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are experiencing some troubles in their marriage.
After a thunderbolt first encounter backstage during a church pageant, they proceed to exchange increasingly emotional hand-written letters (it is 1965 after all -- falling in love ain't as easy as texting a mash note to your crush or changing your relationship status on Facebook) before hatching a plan to run away from their respective homes and live in the woods, the two of them against the world. Naturally, the adults around them don't exactly agree with this arrangement and the community's hangdog sheriff Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) heads up a search party that includes Suzy's parents and Sam's ex-Scout tribe to bring them back to civilization.
Anderson's films are so often remembered for their beautiful production design and richly composed frames, it's easy to overlook the rich performances he frequently brings out of his actors. Lest we forget, this is the director who helped reinvent Bill Murray, transforming him from a sarcastic clown to a seriocomic actor of quiet, but significant power (Lost in Translation and Broken Flower wouldn't have been possible without Rushmore as a stepping stone); gave the retired Gene Hackman his last great screen role as Grandpa Royal in The Royal Tenenbaums; turned Jason Schwartzman into a cult figure via Rushmore; and introduced the world to the Wilson boys -- Luke and Owen -- in his very first film, 1996's Bottle Rocket.
Both Murray and Schwartzman (in a small role as a Scout leader at a rival tribe) are back for Moonrise, while new faces like Norton, McDormand and Tilda Swinton (as a child services agent) fit nicely into the Anderson menagerie. The young stars are quite good as well, even though they wrestle a bit more with Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola's mannered dialogue than their adult counterparts. But I particularly want to single out Willis, who is so good here it almost makes you wish Die Hard had never happened. Not because it's a bad movie, mind you -- it's only one of the greatest action pictures of the past thirty years. But its success unfortunately sent Willis down the path of monosyllabic action star, even as small roles in movies like Pulp Fiction, Death Becomes Her and Nobody's Fool indicated that he was a far more interesting and varied performer. Playing the hangdog Captain Sharp strips Willis of any action stud swagger, making him both relatable and sympathetic in a way he hasn't been in ages. Here's hoping he becomes a regular presence in Anderson's movies going forward.
Ultimately though, it's Anderson's distinct directorial vision that makes the experience of watching Moonrise Kingdom such a pleasure. As always, the sets, costumes and props are richly detailed and painstakingly framed for the camera (a special shout-out has to go to the team of artists that drew the covers of the invented young adult novels that Suzy devours; they're so convincing, I could have sworn that I read a few of them myself when I was her age), the soundtrack is expertly curated (there's plenty of classical music and French pop to accompany all the Hank Williams tunes) and the movie makes room for lots of clever visual and verbal gags (like a Scout-built treehouse teetering atop a towering tree) that don't overtly call attention to themselves.
And while this may not be one of the director's more emotionally complex works along the lines of, say, The Darjeeling Limited, it does successfully capture the primary feeling that Anderson has said he was out to evoke: the rush that comes with first love. The movie's centerpiece sequence is a simple, beautiful montage scored to the François Hardy song "Le Temps de l'Amour" in which Sam and Suzy set up camp in a secluded beach and really get to know each other, graduating from talking to tentative kissing to some light 12-year-old petting. They may not still be a couple ten years -- or heck, even ten months -- after this adventure, but they'll carry the memory of it in their hearts forever. Likewise, when the summer movie season crashes to a close three months from now, I fully expect Moonrise Kingdom to stand out as one of its inarguable gems.
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