Passion of the Hipster King
When will Wes Anderson join the club?
It’s an interesting time to go to the movies. You can tell the ticket-takers have been managerially coerced into making you feel at ease in the wake of the Aurora shooting; they smile, for once, and slink into your theater every thirty minutes to make sure the once-emergency-exits are now securely locked. “What movie are you seeing today?” mine asks me. I nod and point to my ticket, unprepared to answer the first presumptive “we” question asked of anyone since the 1950s. It makes me feel dirty, somehow, like a black man in white gloves is operating an elevator for me. “Ah, Moonrise Kingdom,” he says. “Fantastic movie.”
That assessment—given he’s actually seen the film, which I doubt—would bring the ticket-taker into agreement with my friend Wayne. Wayne (actually a female) is tired of popping up in my writing as a nameless entity who often cries and points at trains, so we’re going to call her Wayne. A few months ago, Wayne sent me an e-mail. “Really weird you told me that reviews of Moonrise Kingdom said it had the most heart of any Wes Anderson film, because this one literally says the exact opposite,” she wrote.
The next time I talked to Wayne about Moonrise Kingdom, she had, of course, seen it five times. She’d memorized all the best scenes, especially the ones with Bill Murray, whose divorce she may or may not have caused with a love letter she sent him in grade school. She currently listens to the staple of Kingdom’s soundtrack, “Cuckoo,” before going to bed and upon waking up in the morning, though planning her inevitable “Cuckoo” tattoo has been difficult. Turns out there are no convenient body parts on which to place the lyric “In April / I open my bill,” though there are several decidedly inconvenient ones.
To date, I’ve seen Moonrise Kingdom twice. I found myself severely on the fence after my first screening, left cold by characters who seemed to reach new levels of roboticism. What’s worse, the whole endeavor felt crippled by a first act that languished in details (a very Andersonian complaint) and threatened to breach the tediousness of Anderson’s universally tolerated debut, Bottle Rocket. Needless to say, I felt just as trapped in Camp Ivanhoe as the film’s young protagonist, but not in a handy form-follows-function kind of way. More in a shut-the-fuck-up-about-treehouses kind of way.
I made a conscious decision to settle in to my second viewing, to spend my afternoon with it, to examine precisely what had whisked Wayne’s soul. Sure enough, Moonrise Kingdom played like butter. Why, though? I can only assume the advantage of foresight—that is, knowing Kingdom would eventually produce moments in which style and substance merged, almost rapturously—made the time Anderson spent building his world feel like a drop in the bucket. And those rapturous moments do come: a soon-to-be-hallmark dance scene on a beach; a shotgun wedding; a heart-wrenching exchange between Murray and Frances McDormand, delivered from twin beds.
The insular environment of “New Penzance” proves a perfect playground for Anderson; as in real island communities, the stakes, at all times, are simultaneously very high and very low. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Howard)—the former an orphan and disillusioned Khaki Scout, the latter labeled a “problem child” by her duo of lawyer parents—are in love and on the lamb. Resting your eyeballs on Moonrise Kingdom a second time makes one thing incredibly clear: Gilman and Howard make this film. Sure, an ensemble of storied actors—Bob Balaban, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis—have fun breathing life into what would otherwise be a collection of luscious brushstrokes, but the kids! The kids, the kids.
Whether they are naturally this aloof or someone beat it into them is irrelevant; what matters is that they seem out of place, unnatural, both in their own environment and in the canon of filmmaking in general. In the basest sense, they are two kids learning to be authentic—outcasts playing house who have found each other but have yet to find themselves. In a larger sense, they are simply unreal—dolls, like all of the other actors, with which Anderson himself plays house. And the latest from Anderson’s gorgeous dollhouse brain is something to be grateful for.
What worries me about Moonrise Kingdom, then, is not its quality, but its reception. No, it isn’t dead on arrival. Yes, its box-office returns have been promising and its RottenTomatoes rating is sufficiently ripe. But in the vast gossip rag that is the Internet, I fail to detect the tinges of excitement that usually precede an eventual Best Picture nominee. Already, Kingdom feels less like an awards pony and more like a brief (if fragrant) fart in the wind.
The more independent-minded of you will forgive me for obsessing over the glib pageant that is the Oscars, but surely you’ll cede that those little gold men are our most steadfast and surving markers of film history. Does Anderson, one of the most unique voices in American cinema, not deserve his place at the top of that heap? When, a hundred years from now, the youngsters search their tiny gadgets for a good old-fashioned movie, do we really want them to think the “establishment” appreciated little more than Anderson’s scripts and soundtracks?
Really, Fantastic Mr. Fox should have been Anderson’s perfect storm—that was the year the Academy began their ten-nominee Best Picture experiment. Their intentions were admirable, but their timing less so; in 2010, five nominees stood head-and-shoulders above the rest, and AMPAS’s Andy-Roonian membership bent over backwards to accommodate a pet project from the Coen brothers and (gasp!) more than one science-fiction film. In the end, allowing a second animated feature after Up was just too far out of the Academy’s comfort zone, and its picks only matched the amalgated critics’ preferences nine-for-ten. Mr. Fox was blindsided by The Blind Side.
To be sure, not all directors can be Scorsese, chameleonic in their ability to muster whatever tone best suits their film. Some of the most revered directors aim to make us feel one thing, and feel it in abundance (I’m convinced Spielberg wants us to feel “windswept”). You’d think the particular nostalgia evoked in Moonrise Kingdom would appeal to the gaggle of geriatrics who crowned The King’s Speech over The Social Network, even after the latter’s unprecedented run on the precursor circuit.
Speaking of Fincher, it’s no coincidence that he, after years of delivering visions like Fight Club and Se7en, finally charmed the Academy with the one-two punch of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network. Both are wrought from brilliant scripts that elevate pathetically thin source material, both feature an awards-worthy ensemble, and neither—here’s the kicker—suffocate under a thick varnish of Fincher himself, ye olde champion of rape and violence and swinging the camera upside down. Then, last year, the script flipped—Fincher’s highly-publicized regression (or progression) to typically hellish material resulted in an impressive bouquet of nominations for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
So my best advice to a Wes Anderson who might be feeling a tad underappreciated is this: Hop in your immaculately-decorated time machine, set the dial to 2009, and declare yourself the director of Eat Pray Love.
Think about it. Julia Roberts stays. Richard Jenkins relinquishes his role to Bill Murray, of course. All you have to do is make Eurasia look cuter than TV kingpin Ryan Murphy had the time or wit to do (and we already know you can). More importantly, I assume the pithy writing partner in your employ would be smarter than to treat Liz Gilbert like a blank canvas, a generic stand-in for the everywoman. In reality, Liz Gilbert was a severely fucked-up fiction writer who traveled the world and saw “The Universe,” and now she gives TED talks in muumuus. Liz Gilbert is not an everywoman, Liz Gilbert is a character, and only after embracing her eccentricities could we possibly feel happy for her when she finally, mercifully, regains her marbles.
You know that better than anybody.
Of course, Wes Anderson isn’t listening. And he probably doesn’t care about Moonrise Kingdom’s year-end recognition, so long as it makes enough money to support his tweed habit. Still, perhaps in an alternate universe that Liz Gilbert frequents, there’s a version of Wes Anderson who’s wowed us by mining everything of value from a pop-lit juggernaut; a Wes Anderson who strayed from his formula just enough to make us miss him. And maybe there’s an Academy out there, somewhere, that’s left the backdoor open for the Woody Allen of the next half-century, for the director who tells us it’s safe to feel like a kid again (for a few hours, in the dark), and for a little gem of a film called Moonrise Kingdom, his much-anticipated “return to form.”
See Jake Ross's interview with Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin here.