There’s a certain style of comedy known as deadpan humor that depends on an audience’s ability to laugh at other people’s misfortunes. Buster Keaton, with his perpetually woebegone hangdog face, was famous for it. But other characters in Keaton movies were known to laugh or smile occasionally; it was the contrast that made Buster funny. With the release of Wes Anderson’s latest oddball epic, Moonrise Kingdom, the question arises: Can a movie still be a comedy if not one person in it cracks a smile even once? In the estimation of this reviewer, the answer is yes, in spades – even though the film’s worldview is decidedly downbeat.
Set in 1965 on an island off the coast of Rhode Island, it’s the tale of a pair of 12-year-old misfits, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who run away together after being diagnosed as “disturbed” by the adults in their lives and bullied by their peers. If it were 2012 at the time of our story, the affectless, detail-obsessed Sam would probably be labeled as having a case of Asperger’s Syndrome. Suzy, a proto-Goth girl who wears heavy Mod blue eyeshadow even in the woods and gets into fights easily, would be labeled oppositional at best, and more likely as having antisocial or borderline personality disorder. But once we meet Suzy’s parents – a miserably married pair of lawyers played by Bill Murray and Frances McDormand – we begin to get an inkling of why Suzy is the way she is.
For his part, Sam is an orphan who has been kicked out of one foster family too many; and as our story begins, with him sneaking out of his rigidly militaristic scout camp to rendezvous with Suzy, his current foster father tells the island police and the scoutmaster (Edward Norton) that they can keep him, once they track him down. The latter is no easy task, since none of the other scouts can hold a candle to Sam when it comes to woodslore and survival skills. Suzy, meanwhile, shows up for her wilderness trek in a skirt and saddle shoes, hauling a battery-powered record player, a suitcase full of heavy overdue library books, a pair of left-handed scissors that prove invaluable in battle and her magical talisman: a pair of binoculars.
Thus armed, the kids drive off the scout posse and discover a private paradise: a cove identified with only a number on their map, which they rename Moonrise Kingdom. Romance ensues, soon to be interrupted by the arrival of a group of worried adults who haul the truants back to civilization – but not for long. When word gets out that an adult known only as Social Services – played by Tilda Swinton with the same chilly efficiency that she exhibited as Narnia’s White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – is coming to the island to put Sam in juvenile detention, most of his erstwhile bullying campmates have a change of heart and decide to help Sam and Suzy escape again. Sam also finds an ally in lonely police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), who’s hankering after Suzy’s mother.
Somehow Sam and Suzy end up atop a church steeple in a hurricane – it’s not the first time that Sam manages to get struck by lightning and survive – but everything turns out more or less okay. The ultimate message is that these “maladjusted” kids are way saner than most of the adult world that surrounds them. If you remember King of Hearts with fondness – Philippe de Broca’s 1966 comedy set during World War I, in which the escaped inmates of a French insane asylum are much happier, nicer and wiser than the soldiers attacking and defending the region – then you’ll “get” Moonrise Kingdom.
Special mention must be made of the artful way in which Anderson sets up, frames and edits his scenes, which approaches cinematic perfection. For instance, in the very funny sequences where Bob Balaban, as the naturalist narrator, explains what is happening where on the island, his head seems to remain stationary in the frame while the background switches around him. The movie is just a joy to look at – and to listen to as well. The ubiquitous-these-days Alexandre Desplat gets credited with the score, but extensive and effective use is made of the works of Benjamin Britten, especially Noye’s Fludde and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; several Hank Williams songs also get tossed in for a folksy counterpoint. Everything in Moonrise Kingdom just works so well that the viewer will come out smiling – even if none of the characters ever did.