Fourteen years ago I bounced out of my seat at the end of Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore.” It was one of the happiest moments of my moviegoing life. Anderson had appropriated the French New Wave in order to honor this very particular type of young American attitude. It was mock-sophisticated and actually sophisticated, pretentious and unpretentious, arch but sincere – this impossible balance of snobbery, warmth, and pseudo-adolescent craftsmanship. Were you so inclined, it was the sort of movie you would have made about your own high-school experience – a comedy that exalted your brilliance, “Ferris Bueller” with a much higher SAT score. When it was over, I just kept saying, “yes, yes, yes.”
Anderson was talented. He had a voice. His movie was also – in this droll, self-styled manner – cool. “Rushmore” was a promise of future greatness. But the future was long in arriving. “The Royal Tenenbaums” got a lot of the way there, but Anderson’s ideas of adultness paled in comparison to the real thing. It was a pantomime of maturity. The movies that followed it were like isolationist tantrums, full of painstaking moviemaking but bereft of breathable air. One was a fiasco set on a boat and submarine. The next was set mostly on a moving train – in India, a country Anderson ultimately couldn’t be bothered, culturally, to explore. He wasn’t growing. He was making socially illiterate coffee-table movies.
But sometimes you stick with a director because, despite his blind spots and fetishes, you believe in him. Something about what he once did lingers in this perfect, permanent way. You’re tattooed. So movie after movie you wait. He’s come so close so often that it’s only a matter of time until he figures out how to do it, how to be the director he promised to become. “Moonrise Kingdom” is Anderson’s seventh movie, and it’s the first since “Rushmore” that works from the opening shot to the final image.
Anderson’s partisans think he’s already figured it out, that he was getting stronger. It’s not true. When, oh when, would he combine his aesthetic obsessions (the francophilia, the Americana, the prep-schoolery), with his natural wit and the heart you assume he had? I love the meticulous diorama framing and the hoisting, pivoting, dumbwaitered, nearly hydraulic camerawork. I would even tolerate the dollhouse framing. I just didn’t want the dolls. I wanted Anderson to show me a soul. “Moonrise Kingdom” does that.
The movie has a manageable premise. Anderson wrote it with his friend Roman Coppola (Francis’s son), and it feels utterly real, vividly dreamt, and totally remembered. Suzy and Sam (Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman) are about 12. They meet, write each other letters, and plot a secret summer getaway to a remote part of their fictitious New England island – New Penzance (!). The film’s set in 1965, so letters have a pleasing sense of romantic drama, which Anderson and his editor heighten in an amusing montage that cuts off each thought not far into a paragraph in order to begin the next letter already in progress. What’s recalled is that pen-pal love is unlike any other, smaller in scale than the great epistolary correspondences and more theatrical than most e-mails. Suzy and Sam are falling in love with both each other and the idea of love. They’re also trying out personas. Suzy wears knee-highs, saddle shoes, and mini-dresses. Her eye makeup is smoky. She’s playing with the surfaces of her budding sexuality. Sam is a nerd who thinks scouting licenses him to be manlier than he is. Of course, her almost mythological violent tendencies (they happen off-screen) turn out to be more darkly tough than anything roiling Sam.
To be together, she flees her trio of younger brothers and her dour father and mother (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand). He sneaks away from his scouting program. What ensues is a search party comprising her parents, his suddenly hapless scoutmaster (Edward Norton), the local sheriff (Bruce Willis), and about half a dozen scouts, who think Sam was mildly exasperating but discover his back story and pity him. The action transpires across a couple of days, and culminates with the arrival of Tilda Swinton, aptly cast as a bureaucratic entity credited only as “So cial Services.” Her red bouffant is gray at the temples, and her clenched air is all Maggie Smith.
Anderson seems to enjoy the opportunity to tell a story – and edit it – as crisply as he can. He and Coppola have devised a collection of characters who only loosely feel like types. You can feel even a part like a handsome scout nicknamed Redford become something slightly more than a throwaway villain. The adult stuff here among Murray, McDormand, and Willis feels simple but private and true in the way a child can think he knows adult feelings but mistakes their depth. Each actor wears a sadness that never hardens into a mask of tragedy.
The achievement here is the marriage of that resonant pathos with Anderson’s peerless sense of graphic design. You see all his influences – the French movies and Norman Rockwell, to start with – and you know he’s seen those films and paintings and wanted desperately to climb inside them. Anderson inspires the same gluttonous spectatorship. You want to eat his movies. You want to wear them. That used to be all he had – this meticulous style and clubby approach to ensemble work that managed only to keep you out. We could spectate, but we couldn’t feel much. The movies were all influence – wallpaper without any walls. Now, when Bob Balaban narrates “Moonrise Kingdom” while striking poses in duck-boots and a wool coat the color of marinara sauce, you want to flip to that page in the catalog. It’s an affectation, but with a little regional magic.
Anderson is 43 now, and there’s a new comfort with himself here. So much of this movie is catalog- or coffee-table ready, but that’s OK. That’s not all it is. When Sam exits an elaborately produced school pageant, he does so in a series of shots that features scores of kids in animal costumes standing around. It’s just a director showing off – with Anderson, you always wish you had an extra set of eyes. It’s also just handsome.
Anderson knows he’s among the best composers of the camera frame the movies have ever had, and he’s having fun with that. The Rockwell allusions with all the scouting scenes actually leave their reference points and stake out new territory, and that’s what’s exciting. Anderson no longer appears content solely with allusions. He knows they have to count for something since a lot of people won’t know what he’s referring to anyway. So when Norton and the troops in their uniforms lift the flap to Sam’s empty tent, you might think about Rockwell, but the image – a medium close-up of them from a low angle – is so funny that it works on it own.
Anderson has suffused the movie with the kind of square hipness he likes. The difference in “Moonrise Kingdom” is that Sam, for instance, has never heard Suzy’s Françoise Hardy records. Anderson discovers the blissful powers of discovery. Elsewhere, Alexandre Desplat shares music duties with Benjamin Britten operas and fugues, some as explained by a child. It’s harmonious pairing. Desplat’s tom-toms and furiously plucked strings are interwoven with the children cooing in Britten’s operas. They make haunting aural needlepoint.
It’s important, I think, that the movie’s set on an island. It’s apart from Anderson’s other films, even as it’s a total self-embrace, too. “Moonrise Kingdom” has a new depth for him. The story builds emotionally and visually. There’s a mounting atmosphere his movies tend to lack – sometimes you don’t know what, in the end, he was going for. This time it’s clear Anderson is headed toward a resolution of some kind, and the suspense comes from whether he’ll get there (he does).
The film climaxes once on the scout campgrounds, where a beautifully orchestrated couple of sequences introduce Jason Schwartzman in scouting khakis. It does so again a few scenes later with all the characters converged in a church, where there are displays of human (physical) darkness and suspense, all under the cloak of clever comedy. I didn’t leap from my chair at the end of “Moonrise Kingdom.” But, emotionally, I’m heavier than I was in 1998. So is Anderson, I suspect. The delight hasn’t lessened so much as deepened: Yes, yes, yes.Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.