Thursday, July 12, 2012

Culture Shock 07.12.12: Sticking it to The Man in 'Moonrise Kingdom'

Clever children having to deal with not-so-clever adults is a movie trope that's far older than either Macaulay Culkin or the Goonies, and with good reason.

It's the ultimate empowerment fantasy played out against the first authority figures any of us encounter: grownups.

Director Wes Anderson's cinematic children are probably better equipped to take on The Man than most. They're ridiculously smart and preternaturally wise for their age, although not as wise as they think they are. But who is?

The Tenenbaum siblings of Anderson's 2001 film "The Royal Tenenbaums" are all child prodigies. Unfortunately, they grow up to be sad, dissatisfied and just plain messed-up adults, pretty much like most of Anderson's other adults.

If only we could all be like Peter Pan and fly away to Never Never Land and never grow up.

Perhaps that's just what Sam and Suzy, engagingly played by newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, have in mind when they run away from home in Anderson's latest movie, "Moonrise Kingdom."

Set in a small New England island community in the mid-1960s, "Moonrise Kingdom" manages to be simultaneously nostalgic for a more innocent time that never was, yet clinically unsentimental about the whole nostalgia business. It's the cool, detached approach that has become Anderson's calling card, and which he perfects here, with the aid of co-screenwriter Roman Coppola, director of the criminally overlooked film "CQ." Amazingly, the result is also — dare I say? — heartwarming.

Both Sam and Suzy are classified as "problem children." They read too much and have ideas of their own. So when first love hits them, they run off, camping gear and borrowed record player in hand, on an adventure.

Not exactly hot on their trail are Sam's well-meaning but clueless scout master (an unusually likable Edward Norton), sad sack policeman Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Suzy's unhappily married parents, Walt and Laura (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand).

With their bad marriages and bad careers and lost loves, the adults are a pretty miserable bunch. It's telling that the only grownup character who has his act together throughout is Bob Balaban's omniscient narrator, who hints to us at the very beginning that he's read ahead in the script.

Basically, he cheated.

The screenplay is full of great lines, and Norton and Murray are both in scene-stealing form, but none of that would matter if Gilman and Hayward weren't up to the challenge. They carry the film and make it seem easy, which is likely a testament to Anderson's direction.

This is filmmaking with authority, which is ironic given that authority appears to be Anderson and Coppola's main target for ridicule. No authority figure is left unscathed, whether it's Capt. Sharp and his deflated ego or the pompous woman from Social Services — identified simply as "Social Services" and played with bureaucratic bluster by Tilda Swinton.

The only people who seem capable of carrying out a plan are our young protagonists and, later on, Sam's fellow scouts.

Minor spoiler: It's no accident that Norton's Scout Master Ward only has his moment of triumph after being relieved of command.

This is a more hopeful Wes Anderson than we've seen before. He leaves us charmed and cautiously optimistic. Maybe, unlike those Tenenbaum kids, Sam and Suzy will grow up to be OK.

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