Wes Anderson's 'Moonrise' warm, eschews hilarity

Published June 27, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom (PG-13) (94 min.) — Wes Anderson's seventh movie is unmistakably his, with shots meticulously framed like dioramas and a camera lingering on droll details before panning or tracking somewhere else. Characters address each other while speaking directly to the lens, in tones too matter-of-fact for their circumstances, at least the way movies train us to listen.

It's a singular style Anderson typically applies to subjects heftier than Moonrise Kingdom, which is little more than a sweet tale of preteen love in 1965, a more innocent age. The roiling family dynamics of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited are present but largely unnoticed.

One budding lover is an outcast orphan; the other suffers from too much family interference. Both are well played by first-time actors. Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) has been banished to Khaki Scout summer camp, where he is a nerd among bullies overseen by ineffectual scout master Ward (Edward Norton). Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives bored nearby with her lawyer parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand).

Sam escapes from camp, Suzy runs away and the pair rendezvous to hike to an isolated cove where they explore independence, romantic expression and the uncertainty of sex. They behave more like adults than the grown-ups mobilizing to find them, led by police Capt. Sharp (Bruce Willis), who's having an affair with Suzy's mom. The Khaki Scouts track Sam with Lord of the Flies fervor, and a bureaucrat known only as Social Services (Tilda Swinton) picks up the scent.

The plot isn't as fetching as the presentation, starting with the tersely whimsical dialogue scripted by Anderson and Roman Coppola. There aren't punch lines for big laughs, but rather a seamless series of non sequiturs for smiles. These characters don't realize they're funny, and the actors are determined not to push it. Willis fares best, playing against in-control type; Murray fans expecting a comedy explosion won't find it here.

The pleasure of Anderson's visual details are plenty, beginning with a bravura tour of the Bishop home and its mundane idiosyncrasies: a pair of left-handed scissors and plaid satchel hanging on a wall like artwork, rooms maintaining vast personal space and a record player providing lessons in music theory. The Khaki Scout camp is inordinately orderly, with military synchronization and Rube Goldberg designs for latrines. Nobody questions why Sam cuts an escape hole in his tent when the zipper works just fine.

Moonrise Kingdom is fascinating to scan for such peculiarities, and Anderson readily provides them, continuing to discover new applications for his offbeat style. While the movie misses the pungent generational satire of Anderson's previous works, it detours toward something like unadulterated warmth for a change. B+

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Steve Persall, Times movie critic