Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 8, 2012)
Indie legend Wes Anderson returns to the screen with his first live-action flick in five years via 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. Set in 1965, the film takes us to the tiny, remote New England island of New Penzance, where we meet its inhabitants.
The film focuses mostly on two early adolescents named Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) and Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman). She lives with her family on New Penzance, while he’s a ward of the state who spends time on the island as part of a scout troop. He doesn’t fit in with the other boys, so he and Suzy – who he got to know as penpals – run off together. We follow their adventures, the attempts of adults to find them, and other interpersonal complications.
I saw Kingdom theatrically, and when I view something on the big screen, I usually like to chat about my experience on the various Internet forums I frequent. In this case, however, I avoided the topic. I encountered uniformly positive remarks about the film and just wasn’t in the mood to have to argue with strangers about.
Normally I don’t shy away from such debate, so why did I stay on the sidelines for Kingdom? Mostly because at this point in Anderson’s career, I tend to think that if a viewer doesn’t like one of his films, that viewer is partly to blame. Anderson has made enough movies over the 16 years since he debuted with Bottle Rocket that an alert filmgoer should know what to expect. Anderson virtually never veers outside of his comfort zone; his movies tell a variety of stories but do so in pretty much the same manner every time. As such, if I don’t like Anderson’s work, to some degree that’s a “shame on me” situation, and I didn’t feel like arguing the subject with more devoted Anderson buffs.
Despite that factor, I still think Kingdom deserves criticism because of the way Anderson expresses his usual MO. While I could never claim to be a big Anderson fan, I’ve enjoyed his prior work. I’ve reviewed four of his six earier films, and I liked all of them. Granted, only 2007’s animated charmer The Fantastic Mr. Fox received an enthusiastic endorsement from me, as I gave more mixed marks to 1998’s Rushmore, 2001’s Royal Tenenbaums and 2004’s Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Though I wasn’t fully satisfied with those last three, I did like them and recommend them. At the very least, those reviews should shield me from accusations that I simply don’t care for Anderson’s work or style.
So what goes wrong with Kingdom? It has all the same ingredients as the other movies – awesome cast, low-key introspective feel, whimsical/off-beat tone – so why does it almost wholly leave me cold?
The main problem stems from Anderson to control his desire to be the King of Twee. In the past, the director always walked a fine line between simple quirkiness and excessive preciousness; he occasionally crossed it, but he remained on the right side enough of the time to keep his movies enjoyable.
In Kingdom, Anderson crosses the line repeatedly. He crosses it, stomps on it, and then urinates all over it. He so heavily embraces his trademark sense of delicate irony and fey charm that Kingdom often across as self-parody. Virtually all Anderson films embrace a certain sense of unreality, but here, those choices become unbearable. Anderson creates such a cloying little universe that it alienates the viewer – or this viewer, at least.
Anderson seems much more concerned with art direction than story, characters or anything else. He appears totally focused on making sure that everything’s “just right” in terms of visual design and camerawork that he forgets he needs to tell an interesting tale about intriguing personalities. Add to that an overwhelming level of self-indulgent quirkiness and matters go south quickly.
I’ve never quite understood Anderson’s affection for deadpan, understated performances, but in the past, that style didn’t harm his movies too much because he recruited such stellar actors. Of course, we continue to find a plethora of talents here; with Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, Harvey Keitel, Bob Balaban, Bruce Willis, and Jason Schwartzman in tow, the film boasts an amazing cast of adult actors.
Unfortunately, most of the film concentrates on its younger performers; in addition to Hayward and Gilman, we spend a ton of time with other adolescents. Across the board, the young actors are mediocre to terrible.
They simply lack the life experience to overcome Anderson’s direction. At no point does it appear that any of them created character choices on their own. I get the impression that Anderson told Gilman, Hayward and all the other kids exactly what to do and they just mimed his instructions.
And mimed them badly. Again, when Anderson wants adults to play low-key and understated, they still bring out some sense of personality and emotion. The kids can’t, so they just come across as lifeless and flat. Suzy and Sam are one-dimensional, monotone characters who never vaguely threaten to endear themselves to the audience.
Maybe that’s what Anderson wanted. Maybe he preferred a pair of less-than-wholly-lovable kids to counteract the usual preening, mugging Hollywood over-actors.
And that’s fine, but he could better strike a balance between hammy broadness and this. It’s simply tough to watch Gilman and Hayward because they’re so one-note. There’s no heart to their performances; they come across as robotic and stiff, which seems strange for a movie about passionate young lovers. When I was 12, if I’d run off with some cute girl, got to see her in her underwear, made out with her and groped her chest, I think I’d be a little more enthusiastic than flat-line Sam!
Anderson films always suffer from a certain clinical coldness, as they seem so concerned with their arty affectations that they detach us from emotions. As I noted, the quality of the actors and the general cleverness of the storytelling overcame that issue in the past, but here it becomes a major problem. Moonrise Kingdom lays a massive egg, as it lacks any sense of charm and simply becomes grating and phony.