How telling, in hindsight, is that scene in The Royal Tenenbaums where Gene Hackman tries to restore Gwyneth Paltrow to her childhood by taking her to an ice cream parlor where the speakers play Vince Guaraldi tunes from A Charlie Brown Christmas? Since then, Wes Anderson keeps making characteristic returns while pining for a lost self. His new movie, Moonrise Kingdom, is essentially a feature-length encore of Margot and Richie Tenenbaum’s sleepover in the African Wing of the Public Archives. From another angle, it is Peanuts Presents Romeo and Juliet. (There’s even a dog named Snoopy.)
Of all the Wes Anderson movies in the world, this is the Wes Andersoniest. Those who find everything that follows Bottle Rocket fussy and puerile have fair warning: Moonrise Kingdom is Anderson’s boy-scout film, set on an imaginary island. New Penzance is a pastoral summer-camp neverland of 1965, where all the women are strong, all the men are sad-looking, and all of the children are barely above savage. The director’s debt to Finnish colleague Aki Kaurismaki has never been more patent—Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray all have self-pitying stoicism down to a kind of a kabuki. Without the leavening influence of Owen Wilson, Anderson’s melancholy can feel brittle. Even with Robert Yeoman providing his most agile cinematography (woodland shots include a motorcycle in a tree and luggage portaged by clothesline), this mannerism remains a constant threat.
Yet a fresh breeze airs out Moonrise Kingdom in every scene where the 12-year-old runaways Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop (Jared Gilman and an astonishing Kara Hayward) arrange an elopement from their Norman Rockwell world. Anderson has rarely been funnier, or his compositions more packed with detail, than in the epistolary montage where the young rebels make plans (while Sam is menaced by greasers). He has never handled delicate material so deftly as when the couple—in shades of Badlands and Godard—reaches a blue lagoon. Here, Sam pitches several tents. “It’s hard,” Suzy whispers as Sam presses against her, after they’ve danced to Françoise Hardy like marooned Parisian mods. Indeed there is a core of tough-minded wisdom in this movie’s treatment of sexual discovery—not leering, not dodging, but frankly enchanted.
Anderson feels fierce loyalty to formative connections. It can’t be an accident that Suzy Bishop is costumed like a twin sister to Margot Tenenbaum, down to their pastel jumpers and blue eyeshadow. Meanwhile, the adults sleep in separate beds. McDormand tells Murray from one mattress to another that they must stay together for the children: “We’re all they’ve got.” But in fact she has it backward. The first loves are the richest, and they’re all we’ve got. With Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson continues to cherish and shepherd the memories that we blockheads put away. PG-13.
Critic’s Grade: A-
SEE IT: Moonrise Kingdom opens Friday at Fox Tower.