Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for June 13th, 2012

A young person’s guide to Wes Anderson

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Wes Anderson makes movies suffused with a sense of diligent play, like a bright child assembling a craft project out of construction paper and elbow macaroni. It’s fun, but it’s also deadly serious, and you wouldn’t want to interrupt him before he’s done. My own favorite is The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which comes closer than any film I’ve ever seen to approximating the kind of movie I would have made when I was twelve years old, given the full resources of a willing studio—and I mean this as a compliment in the strongest possible way. Anderson has often been compared to Joseph Cornell, another misleadingly childlike artist of great meticulousness, and his new film Moonrise Kingdom is his most intricate Cornell box to date. (It also reflects the vision of cowriter Roman Coppola, whose first big job as a filmmaker was designing and executing the ingenious practical effects for his father’s version of Dracula.)

Not surprisingly, Moonrise Kingdom is especially wise when it comes to rendering the inner lives of precocious children, notably Sam and Suzy, two twelve-year-olds who run away from home in New England in 1965. Anderson’s approach has always been to treat his younger characters as miniature adults, and while this can come off as rather arch to adult eyes, I suspect that I would have related strongly to these kids when I was their age—like Sam, I was always in a rush to grow up. Part of the charm of Anderson’s children lies in their slightly flat performances: like the child actors who provide the voices for Bill Meléndez’s Peanuts specials, they don’t always seem to fully understand their own dialogue, but the result is an appealing sense of children playing roles that are just barely over their heads. (If I could pair one director with any film project, my dream would be to have Wes Anderson direct the movie version of Encyclopedia Brown.)

If Moonrise Kingdom has a problem, it’s that the adult characters aren’t seen as clearly as the children. The cast is very engaging, but several of the characters, like Tilda Swinton’s demon from social services, are pure caricature, while Jason Schwartzman’s scenes play like a parody of a Wes Anderson movie. There are a lot of funny moments here—I laughed happily throughout the entire film—but at the back of my mind, I suspect that this would have been a stronger movie if Anderson had focused on the kids and kept the grownups offscreen. He simply doesn’t have much to say about his adult characters this time around, which is a shame from the man who gave us Bill Murray in Rushmore and Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums. (It isn’t surprising that Anderson is most comfortable with adults who act like overgrown children.)

What I missed in Moonrise Kingdom was the presence of a more disciplined authorial hand, which Owen Wilson, of all people, supplied in Anderson’s early work and Noah Baumbach brought to The Life Aquatic. Anderson’s best movies have scripts that are as obsessively structured as his camera moves, and while Moonrise Kingdom makes some interesting structural choices—it opens with Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which, like the movie itself, separately introduces four different ensembles before bringing them together for the grand climax—the result ends up feeling a little too scattered. Left to his own devices, Anderson isn’t especially good at constructing a shapely narrative: the movie is more like a stroll through the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, with their slices of lives at perfect 1:12 scale. It’s a trip I’d gladly make again, but mostly just for another glimpse of Sam and Suzy, moving off through the woods in the distance.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

June 13, 2012 at 7:30 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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