Watching “Moonrise Kingdom” Without Reading About It First

Reading the reviews of Moonrise Kingdom this morning, after seeing it last night based on just a thumbs-up from an editor friend, I was pleasantly surprised at how watching a Wes Anderson film is still so immediate and heartfelt an experience, even for the jaded wing of the critical establishment. When I saw that even the Village Voice liked it, I wondered, Why aren’t we sick of his preciousness by now? Hasn’t his aesthetic, straight off the expensive rack at the vintage store, become too cloying, and his obsessions about precocious castaways playing at being adults too predictable?


Apparently not! I stood up and marched in line with his Kakhi Scouts and find myself in lockstep with most of the critics. How does Anderson keep doing it?


For one, the screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom, which he co-wrote with Roman Coppola, is a “world of the story” Exhibit A for the textbooks. That’s the writers’ phrase for the parameters of reality, or what could happen inside the story. In most scripts it’s a simple matter of establishing a repertoire of what is commonplace, what’s possible, and what’s extraordinary in the fictional world you’re creating.


Helping a friend with a crime drama recently, I found myself insisting that we first figure out the “world of the story.” If the police came and searched my house today, it would be the worst day of the decade for me, and if we made a movie about that day, it would have to be about how I haven’t spoken to my old best friend the lawyer for over two years and owe him a call, and about some misunderstanding with my landlord that lead someone to call the cops on me. When they search Richard Widmark’s house, he tells them off with a cocky grin, then stops for a drink on his way to a crime scene: it’s part of life for him.


In Moonrise Kingdom, the breakfast reveille of the Kakhi Scouts quickly introduces the goofball habits and camping skills that will be the nuts and bolts of the story, but also establishes a texture of reality in the way people talk to one another. A director typically gets credit for this – and Anderson does deserve what kudos he gets for envisioning a way that people speak and keeping every performance inside the same vernacular – but this clearly started with the script. Lines like “Jiminy cricket! He’s flown the coop!” only make sense in a world of mid-20th Century innocence, already hinted at by minute 5 by the narrator, who set the semi-mythic time and place, and by the “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” which the heroine’s family was listening to as they started their first day without her.


It’s a superior film to Anderson and Coppola’s previous collaboration The Darjeeling Limited, whose plot was boiler plate indie drama, and whose Indian setting was purely incidental and added a socio-historical gravity that Anderson was not up to addressing. Anderson is a poet mid-century American culture, not least because he’s rewritten his ode again and again, and you can’t doubt his sincerity. It also helps – gotta say it! – that he has good taste, and that the well of kitsch he draws from is more rarified than most.


The easy way to tell Moonrise Kingdom would be to position the tragic, illicit couple against the arrayed forces of church, family, and state, and to use Americana to color it with ironic counterpoint. Hymns, portraits of Eisenhower, cheerleading uniforms, and students pledging allegiance are the stuff of cheap laughs in American cinema. As long as a film includes a dose of what was rad back in 1965, rock and roll or whatever, it’s open season on the hypocrisy of illegitimate middle class authority. When Anderson and Coppola’s narrator evokes the classroom documentaries of the 1960s, or when the young lovers meet backstage at a church pageant, it’s not to say “Look at the impossible places love blooms, in this desert of corny, phony American culture.” It’s to say “Bravo! A couple that lives up to our ideals.”


“Bravo!” is right.