At the press conference for Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, a competition entry and the opening film of the 65th Cannes Film Festival, Bill Murray referred to art films as projects where “everyone works long hours and no one gets any money.” Of course, like all of Anderson’s features, Moonrise Kingdom, a characteristically whimsical tale of budding adolescent passion, is the most accessible kind of art film. Unlike many of the foreign art films showcased at previous incarnations of the Cannes competition, Moonrise Kingdom does not include 10-minute takes in which the camera never moves; nor does it require any specialized historical or philosophical knowledge. Given Cannes’ efforts to juggle art and commerce, opening with Anderson’s film is no doubt a canny maneuver. Yet for obsessive buffs, his work’s populist appeal is supplemented by his movies’ multiple playful references to other movies. And Anderson’s all-consuming—some might say nearly anal retentive—attention to art direction and costume design makes his highly personal films much more visually alluring than the vast majority of Hollywood “product.”
The highly enjoyable Moonrise Kingdom, although far from a masterpiece, is certainly a much more respectable opening choice than the clinkers that inaugurated the festival in recent years, from Ron Howard’s Da Vinci Code to Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. But the mild-mannered Anderson remains one of the most polarizing figures in American filmmaking. On the one hand, Anderson’s fans endorse the critic Kent Jones’s 2002 assertion that “Wes Anderson is the most original presence in American film comedy since Preston Sturges.” On the other, a New York-based journalist I chatted with called Moonrise Kingdom “unbearably twee” and “endlessly irritating”—a description that neatly sums up many critics’ and audience members’ palpable hostility to a director who is far from a rabble rouser. When, for example, The Guardian recently posted four brief “featurettes” designed to promote the movie, the venomous observations from many of the commenters inspired a lonely fan to call for a moratorium on the word “quirky,” an adjective occasionally used to praise, but more often to denigrate, Anderson’s idiosyncratic body of work. Even Variety’s largely favorable review of Moonrise Kingdom chided Anderson for his “smug eccentricity.
If it’s possible to distill any general themes from the outbursts of the anti-Anderson contingent, it seems as if the “haters” assume that his preoccupation with precocious adolescents makes him little more than an overgrown, annoyingly precocious adolescent himself. In any case, Moonrise Kingdom has already provided ample ammunition for both the pro-Anderson and anti-Anderson camps. Set in 1965 on the fictional New England island of New Penzance—which manages to evoke both the sublime silliness of Gilbert and Sullivan and the romance of pirates—the opening shots, for better or worse, signal that we are, without a shadow of a doubt, in familiar Wes Anderson terrain. As the camera glides along the interior of Mr. and Mrs. Bishop’s (Bill Murray, cast in every Anderson feature except Bottle Rocket, and Frances McDormand) converted lighthouse, the spectators are offered a child’s view of an unhappy marriage—the middle-class home as dysfunctional dollhouse.
While most of the Bishop kids are content to engage in innocuously nerdy activities that include listening to recorded lectures on Benjamin Britten, 12-year-old Suzy (Kara Hayward) is a sullen rebel. She soon finds her soul mate in Sam (Jared Gilman), an orphan and the most unpopular boy in his “Khaki Scout” troupe. A bright kid with a penchant for confronting adults, he convinces Suzy to run away with him, and the star-crossed lovers become a sort of junior high version of Bonnie and Clyde. Like many of the French films featuring teenagers that Anderson admires, the adults are either doltish authoritarians (Tilda Swinton plays a character simply named “Social Services” who wants to subject Sam to electroshock therapy) or well-intentioned but inept and clueless. Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) not only cannot prevent Sam from becoming a fugitive; he loses track of all the members of his troupe. Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the island’s lone and unusually sweet-tempered cop, leads an incompetent search and rescue mission to find the wayward young lovers.
It perhaps goes without saying that what makes the film distinctive is not its relatively banal narrative but Anderson’s flair for oddball details that enchant his admirers and drive naysayers slightly batty. The makeshift earrings that Sam constructs for his paramour with fish hooks and available insects, Suzy’s affection for French pop singer Françoise Hardy, and the intricate jacket designs of the fantasy novels she carries with her might be called endearing or relentlessly “quirky.” After all, even J.D. Salinger was once reprimanded for wallowing in the sweet anguish of adolescence, and in Moonrise Kingdom there are noticeable echoes of his story “The Laughing Man,” which deals, not coincidentally, with a youth organization based on the Boy Scouts. I, for one, would be a little taken aback if even the most adamant opponents of Anderson’s aesthetic did not crack a smile when Sam kisses Suzy and then spits out a grain of sand—a perfect embodiment of the awkwardness and bliss of young love.
It’s difficult to know what to make of the fact that Suzy and Sam’s tragicomic tryst predates, by a few years, the turbulent events of the late ’60s. Anderson has always been a fairly apolitical director, and his characters’ rebelliousness is usually confined to the psychological realm. (At the Cannes press conference for the film, he claimed that the decision to locate the narrative in 1965 was purely arbitrary and intuitive.) Yet the time frame unquestionably infuses Moonrise Kingdom with more than a tinge of melancholy. Norton speculated that his character might be headed off to Vietnam in a few years and, by the end of the decade, Suzy and Sam’s mildly erotic escapades would be deemed quite tame indeed.