It has been fourteen years, but Wes Anderson can at least attest to having made one great film. Its name is "Rushmore
," and in the heartfelt tale of both a 15-year-old boy (Jason Schwartzman) and a middle-aged man (Bill Murray) respectfully coming of age as they vie for the attention and affection of a comely school teacher (Olivia Williams), Anderson created a minor masterpiece both very funny and unexpectedly deep, stylistically playing to its own tune but never losing sight of the multilayered people at the center of the story. In performance, in screenplay, in cinematography and editing and glorious choice of soundtrack, "Rushmore
" is just about perfect. If Anderson seemed to be an extraordinary new auteur back in 1998, he has botched every one of his proceeding live-action efforts (we'll keep 2009's stop-motion Roald Dahl adaptation "Fantastic Mr. Fox
" out of it). From 2001's "The Royal Tenenbaums
," to 2004's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
," to 2007's "The Darjeeling Limited
," the director has become so in love with the arch, monotone "cuteness" of his writing and aesthetics that he has ceased making movies about human beings and instead rendered his ensemble of characters rote, two-dimensional, nearly emotionless robots. Were it not for "Rushmore
," it would be easy to write Anderson off as a one-trick pony. Having proved he's capable of greatness, however, has only made every one of his follow-ups all the more disappointing.
Anderson's second writing collaboration with Roman Coppola (following "The Darjeeling Limited
"), "Moonrise Kingdom" should work on several different levels: as a nostalgic snapshot of a different time, as a prepubescent love story, as a slice-of-life about the pangs of growing up and feeling as if you do not fit in. In reality, said motion picture feels like a snapshot of an alternate world, a prepubescent story of friendly, but distant, acquaintances, and a slice-of-fantasy about a bunch of dim, clueless adults and two kids caught in the middle of a landscape where empathy hasn't been invented and low-IQs run rampant. 12-year-olds Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) are comparatively even-keeled, arguably the least screwed-up of the people around them. Living off the coast of Maine on New Penzance Island in the year 1965, when neglected foster child Sam runs away from his scout camp and Suzy does the same from her tidy dollhouse of a home, the grown-ups drive themselves crazy trying to bring them back. Edging deeper into the forest to be alone, Sam and Suzy's actions are a fruitless cry for help since no one around themnot Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), not Suzy's philandering mother (Frances McDormand) and sad-sack father (Bill Murray), not the town's police captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), and not Social Services (the entire agency personified by Tilda Swinton)comes close to understanding them.
If movies were judged the same as pretty photographs, then "Moonrise Kingdom" would be a ravishing golden ode to both nature and the parting of childhood. None too subtly, even the picture-perfect home that Suzy shares with her parents and younger brothers is nicknamed "Summer's End." Though Sam and Suzy's initial run-in is sweet in its own way, he sneaking behind the scenes of a school production for "Noye's Fludde" and she dressed as a raven in the dressing room, preparing to go on, that is where their soulful connection ends. As these two head deeper into the woods, right on down the old Chickchaw trail amidst gentle riverbeds and browning foliage, the viewer hopes to learn more about them and the bond that glues them together. Instead, their exchanges are rather perfunctory, with Suzy acting more often like she is tolerating the less mature Sam than having genuinely fallen for him. Maybe she is
using him, a means of running away without being all alone as she aims to get back at her mom, whom she has learned is having an affair with the island's police captain.
In addition to the loving autumnal cinematography by Robert Yeoman (2011's "Bridesmaids
"), "Moonrise Kingdom" does have one other secret weapon in its favor. As Suzy, Kara Hayward, making her film debut, all but carries the entire picture. The kind of talent who was obviously born to be a star, she is a luminous presence of thoughtful intelligence, sympathetic vulnerability, and eye-catching beauty. Looking uncannily like a younger sister to musician Lana Del Rey, Hayward speaks as much with the simplest facial expression as she does with words, and every one of them stings with truth and poignance. That the actress does all of this while wading through a vaguely formed character is all the more a testament to her abilities. If she wants to, Kara Hayward will go far in her career. As for the rest of the cast, it is criminal how Anderson puts together such a vibrant ensemble and then wastes every last one of them. Edward Norton (2008's "Pride and Glory
") and Tilda Swinton (2011's "We Need to Talk About Kevin
") are tasked with portraying caricatures as the scout master and social services lady, respectively, while Bruce Willis (2010's "Red
") underplays to the point of sleepiness as Captain Sharp. Frances McDormand (2011's "Transformers: Dark of the Moon
") gets one nice scene with Hayward ("Poor Suzy. Everything's gotta be so hard."), and that is the start and finish of their relationship as mother and daughter. As for Bill Murray (2008's "City of Ember
"), as Suzy's dad, and Jason Schwartzman (2010's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
"), as Cousin Ben, they are such non-entities that it's very nearly like they're not even in the film.
For a movie set up as a lyrical hymn to young love, director Wes Anderson misses the boat by not exploring beyond the surface. He's enamored with the look and tone of his moviesthe dry humor, the overly precious mugging, the performers acting as if they're fulfilling stage directions rather than naturally coming alive in front of a camerabut at this point in his career, all of that feels amateurish. Every artist should be who they are, but Anderson's lack of willingness to grow has consistently been his undoing. "Moonrise Kingdom" has individual moments that are alluring to the eyes, but like the aforementioned dollhouse where Suzy lives, take a closer look inside and it becomes obvious how artificial all the parts are. Where is the honesty to go along with Anderson's incessant preening?