The first four films by director/writer Wes Anderson are an interesting balancing act between Anderson's "just-so" visual and tonal sensibilities and the limitation of control he has over the real people that inhabit his films, both in terms of his friends (Owen Wilson's excited-kid performance gives Bottle Rocket its comic snap) and marquee names whose reputations said "great actor" and "temperamental" in equal measure (Gene Hackman, Bill Murray, James Caan). Like a yin-and-yang, one element helped cut through and contrasted the other in all the right ways. By 2007, however, Anderson had clout, clout that affords him the ability to cast actors he's accustomed to working with and an increasing level of control over every single element in the frame. I don't mean to knock Anderson's ability to realize his artistic vision, but his recent output is as artfully designed as it is lifeless.
For awhile, Moonrise fares much better than the gloomy Darjeeling or Fox thanks to the performances of Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, playing a pair of kids who plot an escape from their equally troubled lives. Sam (Gilman) is leaving behind foster parents and a troop of Khaki Scouts who don't like him, while Suzy (Hayward) wants to get away from her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) after discovering her mother's secret romance with the local police chief (Bruce Willis). Cutting between their journey across the island of Penzance and a flashback detailing how they met and the subsequent pen-pal decision to run away, the two actors are wonderfully alive. When Suzy shares the contents of her suitcase with Sam, the movie is sweet and affectionate.
Unfortunately, a crucial scene on the beach brings the film back down. In earlier scenes, you can see the young actors drawing from wells of personal emotion, but the pair's bad dancing and stiff intimacy feels as choreographed as an action fight scene. It may be looked down on these days to refer to The Graduate, but Ben Braddock banging his head against the wall is unplanned and alive in a way that Sam and Suzy's interactions are not. It's the one moment in the movie that screams to be hesitant, anxious, and intense, but Anderson's mannered style overwhelms it.
Elsewhere, most of the adults are also carefully following orders. Bruce Willis plays Captain Sharp as a tired, lonely man, and although his subtlety is appreciated, it almost feels like a waste to put Bruce Willis in an Anderson film and allow him to be so low-key as to drop beneath Anderson's goofy sense of humor. Murray and McDormand are mostly wasted in small roles that are meant to reflect the future Sam and Suzy should see on the horizon but refuse to, which would be optimistic if the characters weren't such a drag. The two standouts are Edward Norton, as a cheery Khaki Scout Master who seems energized by Sam's escape, and Bob Balaban as a narrator / host who pops up around the island to inform the viewer of an impending storm.
Prison-escape-style hijinks with the Khaki Scouts and some additional familiar faces help make the second half of the movie fun, but Moonrise Kingdom never fully regains the spark from the first 30 minutes, much less the full-fledged liveliness of Anderson's earlier films. It's hard to argue that a filmmaker should not be allowed to realize their vision as close to what they pictured as possible, and the ease with which Anderson does this is admirable, but for a film about the recklessness of youth and the exhilaration of young love, Moonrise Kingdom mostly reflects the formality of adults.
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