The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article At the opening of Wes Anderson’s new film, Moonrise Kingdom, several children listen to a record of Benjamin Britten’s ‘A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’. The piece isolates different instruments and explains their functions as the orchestra plays though sections of a Purcell theme: strings, wind, percussion, etc. It is reminiscent of a typical Anderson move: the taking apart of something to see how it works, related to the cut-out sets that look more like exploded diagrams illustrating a way of life in which wish fulfillment and melancholy longing are almost visible components. Like a fly-away set in a movie studio, Anderson’s self-consciously artificial films are designed to come to pieces and then reform, but this process can also render them increasingly inorganic and ultimately sterile. Billy Bragg is a wise man, and perhaps he should listen to him when he sings, ‘The temptation to take precious things apart to see how they work must be resisted, for they never fit together again…’

As with an orchestra, Anderson throughout his filmography has established his own handwriting - his own poetics, if you will - that has become predictable to the point of monotony. The prominent soundtrack with its mix of contemporary indie song writers, period classics (which is often itself a mix of lesser known B sides and forgotten classics) and Mark Mothersbaugh’s chamber pieces, written for the film; the slow motion tracking shot; the unexpected darkness; the rich, privileged, eccentric characters who also have problems; the elaborate rooms and houses; the meticulous mise-en-scène that gives the impression the film has been storyboarded in colourful pencil; the love story which is always between a beautiful woman and some kind of damaged geek.

My own response to Anderson has tended to be delighted and supportive. The delight itself has a particular tone. It’s like a song that, when you hear for the first time, you feel sure you’ve heard before because it feels so right. It’s like a book or movie that you feel you agree with, that you have something in common with. Anderson and his audience rhyme. The music again is a case in point: it’s like listening to a cooler older sibling’s record collection - some you know, the rest you want to know.

But not all is well of late. There have been harrumphs at the self-indulgence; annoyance at the ‘quirkiness’, and now, on watching his new film, I am beginning to feel that our relationship has become a little too cozy. Moonrise Kingdom is a coming of age story that itself refuses to grow up. It pretends to have social realities, but inscribes them all into a fairytale character called Social Services (Tilda Swinton) and then calls on her to relent at the spectacle of dubious schmaltz at the end. That is not to say it isn’t funny, smart, entertaining and it looks great, but anyone equipped with a Wes Anderson check list can complete it while watching the film. This is a director who is not pushing any limits - one who is treading water, retelling the same jokes. And as we get further into Andersonland, reality - the reality that Andersonland needs - is vanishing like an enchanted dream.

Let’s go back a little. Anderson’s first film was the amiable heist comedy Bottle Rocket (1996). The Wilson brothers were great; there was a sense of fresh enthusiasm to, not only the film, but life itself and, as an all-important brake to that enthusiasm, there was James Caan’s rascally gangster, Mr. Henry. He was the grit that the oyster needed to make the pearl, the grounding to the whimsy, the experience that defined the innocence of Dignan and Anthony. The film flopped but earned itself a Criterion release and some high-end admirers. Anderson’s sophomore effort was his breakout success. Rushmore (1998) introduced a brilliant comic actor in Jason Schwartzman and rediscovered an almost forgotten one in Bill Murray. As with Bottle Rocket, Rushmore was co-written by Owen Wilson and tells a story of the fabulist schoolboy, Max Fischer, who falls for his teacher. Here again, Fischer’s imaginative tendencies have to bump up against the real world, although that world is the somewhat softened and mediated version of a private school, whose traditions and self-conscious anachronisms are themselves imagined worlds. Despite his best attempts to make his fantasies real, Max is surrounded by adults who have lived in the real world. Rosemary Cross (Olivia Wilde) has lost her husband and Murray’s fantastic Herman Blume is a genuinely depressed man. Max represents temporary succor and inspiration to these world-weary adults. But there is a productive tension to the film as Max’s fantasy comes up against the realities of sexual jealousy, disappointment and grief. What is both comic and heartbreaking is the gap between what Max wants the world to be like and what it is actually like. It is a romantic irony. We know it ain’t so, but we fully endorse the attempt; the failure is a heroic one.

Wes Anderson’s masterpiece, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), gave us a family of disappointed Max Fischers, who have failed so badly that even their successes are failures. Here reality is not represented by Angelica Huston’s facilitating mother, but rather by Gene Hackman’s scoundrel Royal. His relative indifference to his children - compared to the suffocating care provided by the mother - ultimately has a liberating effect on them. The grief and the tragedy in the film is largely in the past - Chas’s wife’s death, Richie’s breakdown - but their lingering inability to live up to their own legend and to find happiness threatens to destroy the whole family or to see them retreat back to their childhood cocoon. The tent where Richie hides in the heart of the house is an inscription of the filmmaking itself into the film. This is Anderson’s secret room, right here. He has his nostalgia, his camp, his escape, his adventure, his safety and his soundtrack via the Rolling Stones; he also has his chaste sexual fantasy of kissing his (adopted) sister Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow). When Richie finally confesses his desire to his father, it is on the roof of the hotel: a wide open living and real space compared to the flesh coloured claustrophobia of the tent. Hackman’s response - ‘What the hell! A long as you’re happy…’ - relieves Richie of his psycho-drama. Hackman’s blasé selfishness is a comic, joyful relief compared to their own self-regarding angst. He doesn’t know Margot’s middle name but, in a way, so what? He criticizes the children’s play, but for such a consummate liar he is also a strategically sound truth teller.

Anderson’s last four films have seen him change collaborator, with Noah Baumbach and then Roman Coppola taking the place of Owen Wilson. And each film has also held a more distant and tenuous relationship to a non-Andersonland reality. Throughout his films Anderson has often included dark moments which only glancingly had anything to do with their real-life counterparts. The mental illness of Bottle Rocket and Richie’s suicide attempt in The Royal Tennenbaums don’t really convince, especially the latter, which is underscored and overscored with suicidal songs from Elliot Smith (later to kill himself) and Nick Drake (already a famous suicide). The actual suicide scene itself is powerful precisely as an aesthetic piece of work, a set piece reflecting (in front of the mirror) the nihilistic end of narcissism.

But the darker moments in the later films - Ned’s death in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and the Indian child’s death in The Darjeeling Limited - begin to seem fundamentally dishonest. The first feels like a grasping for an effect which has no narrative purpose. Ned dies so something sad happens that we care about. Perhaps worse still is the utter superficiality of The Darjeeling Limited. The American tourists, who are ‘finding themselves’ as they try to find their mother, meet the Third World as three children crossing the river on a raft which immediately capsizes. They heroically save the boys. All but one. ‘I didn’t get mine,’ Peter (Adrien Brody) says. The boys are just part of the brothers’ adventure: the boy's mishap is due to their own incompetence, and the child’s death allows them some authenticity as they attend the funeral, incidentally giving Anderson an opportunity for a slow-motion tracking shot and a new music cue. The film satirizes the Americans’ attempts at transcendence and their squabbling, but the film itself also has no real interest in India other than as a series of backdrops, and a fuckable girl on the train.

Moonrise Kingdom continues the trend. Here there are two moments where death could have entered the film. One is when the dog is shot. I liked this part and thought we were going to get something truly dark, but the film almost immediately reneged on any examination of childish cruelty. Okay. But then when a character gets struck by lightning and survives, all sense of jeopardy and credibility is gone. We are in Wile Coyote territory and nothing matters. We have a wedding, but a Walkabout (1971) examination of childhood sexuality this most certainly is not. The island is simply Richie’s tent, the way that Zissou's boat was also Richie’s tent - and, for that matter, The Darjeeling Limited’s train and the whole of the Indian subcontinent.

As the film progresses it in fact increasingly comes to resemble its immediate predecessor, the excellent Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), whose cartoonish sense of safety and invincibility worked because it was indeed an animation. Moonrise Kingdom, on the other hand, is able to indulge in cliffhanging peril because, ultimately, nothing is truly at stake. The happy ending is assured. And Social Services? Well, she can fuck off back to the real world.

This article was published on June 17, 2012.

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