Did you think Wes Anderson had no more tricks up his sleeve, that he was just showing us the same thing over and over again, that he couldn’t surprise us? Go and see “Moonrise Kingdom,” because it takes Anderson’s formula in an exciting new direction. It’s among the best of his work.
Like all of his post-”Bottle Rocket” live-action films, ‘Moonrise’ features a slightly skewed reality, characters standing in the center of the frame staring blankly, and other mainstays of Wes Anderson Bingo. But there’s also a fundamental sweetness, as well as sadness. Anderson does both of those pretty well.
Also, despite a top-notch supporting cast that consists of both Anderson mainstays and newcomers, it’s a couple of unknowns who walk away with the film.
Anderson’s first pure period piece- although his films tend to exist in a sort of alternate universe where time doesn’t matter- “Moonrise Kingdom” is set in 1965 on an unnamed island that looks to be in New England (the film was shot in both Rhode Island and on Long Island.)
We get the usual slightly skewed reality, with such touches as what looks like a year-end boy scout camp, a version of the boy scouts that has things like Army bases, and something called the “U.S. Department of Inclement Weather.”
The plot takes that scene in “The Royal Tenenbaums” where the kid versions of Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow sneak off to the museum for a few days and extrapolates it to an entire film, one of several ideas from previous Anderson pictures that get expanded here.
Orphan Sam (Jared Gilman) attends a boy scout camp headed by super-officious scoutmaster Edward Norton, while Suzy (Kara Hayward) is the troubled daughter of Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, married lawyers who hate each other.
The two decide to run off together, and their scenes together are simultaneously charming, evocative and very funny. This is due to both Anderson’s direction and the performances of the two young actors, who both knock it out of the park. I see an especially bright future for Hayward- she, much like Shailene Woodley, will soon make Kristen Stewart obsolete.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the name actors. Bruce Willis has a wonderful, against-type turn as a nerdy policeman, while the sight of Bill Murray, miserable, shirtless and brandishing an alcoholic beverage, is never not glorious- remember his Budweiser swimming trunks from “Rushmore“? Norton gives his most notable performance in years, and even Harvey Keitel has an entertaining extended cameo. Bob Balaban shows up too, as a halfhearted narrator in the tradition of Sam Elliott in “The Big Lebowski.”
But the true star here is Anderson’s direction. The location selection and set decoration are just incredible, reminiscent of the big house set on ‘Tenenbaums.’ Anderson has created a world here and it’s just amazing, with even worthwhile things going on in the background more often than not.
The music is superlative once again too, with both composers most associated with the director- Mark Mothersbaugh and Alexandre Desplat- contributing to the soundtrack, along with the usual obscure British and French pop tunes.
When it comes to Anderson’s body of work, I consider “Bottle Rocket” a standout debut, “Rushmore” and “Royal Tenenbaums” his masterpieces, “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” highly underrated, and “The Darjeeling Limited” his one true dud. I enjoyed “Fantastic Mr. Fox” but was hoping Anderson would get back to his live-action, world-building roots with his next film. He has; “Moonrise Kingdom” is far and away the best movie of 2012 so far.