Wesley Don’t Lose That Number or: does Moonrise Kingdom prove Steely Dan right?

You wouldn’t necessarily peg (pun totally intended, dude) acerbic rockers Donald Fagen and Walter Becker of Steely Dan as the types to break from their glazed cocoon of smooth jazz ennui to offer cross-medium advice. But, around the time of Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, that’s exactly what they did.

In an hilarious missive to the director, they identified something of a malaise affecting Anderson; a refusal to or – more perturbingly – an inability to move on from the meticulous constructions that defined his early work. They warned that his “career as an auteur is mirrored in the lives of [his] beloved characters as they struggle in vain to duplicate early glories”. They also offered up a theme tune (sample lyric: “Darjeeling Limited / That’s the train I wanna get kissed on / Darjeeling Limited / But I’ll be lucky if I get pissed on”), but frankly, that’s beside the point. If the glorious Fantastic Mr Fox represented a tantalising leap outside the hitherto hermetically sealed Anderson box, then Moonrise Kingdom – all pretty colours, exact framing and mannered dialogue – jumps straight back into it, elegantly shod feet first.

Moonrise Kingdom is a simple tale of two young, disaffected runaways in love. The boy is a social outcast, scout and an orphan (though brief scenes suggest his residence is less an orphanage, more of a training school for would-be Arthur Fonzarellis), while the girl is a troubled soul, sired by a thoroughly miserable couple, prone to violence and squabbles with her trio of little brothers. Despite the promise offered by such a set-up, the film is oddly cold, flat and hard to get involved with.

One of the biggest obstacles to enjoyment is the dialogue which, far too often, simply dies in the mouths of the actors. Of Fox, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek wrote: “I’m not sure I can explain why Anderson’s trademark dry, clever patter seems less tortured, and so much funnier and more believable, when it’s emerging from the mouths of animal puppets with scruffy, disarranged fur”, and this observation certainly rings true in the case of Kingdom’s cast, most obviously the kids, who shoulder a great deal of screen time. Like the mid-section of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Lifewe’re supposed to be seeing things through the hazily irrational filter of the child’s eye view, yet this pair are so painfully self-aware and unbelievably hyper-articulate that it’s hard not be irritated from minute one. The boy, Jared Gilman, seems to struggle particularly to square his character with the overconfident enunciations demanded by the script.

And surely Anderson’s creative inertia is no better exemplified than in his criminally flaccid deployment of Bill Murray; here, again, wasted as a cuckold prone to the occasional manic depressive outburst. The lines between the actor and the performance are now blurred by a messy, desultory greyness. One just wants him to be funny again. It’s a toss-up between Edward Norton and Bruce Willis for the film’s most interesting character, perhaps as much for what Anderson provides them with as what he doesn’t. They’re both cast against type, as sad-sack authority figures (scout leader and cop respectively), which is compelling in itself, but save from one or two desperately brief snatches of pathos, they’re given frustratingly little to do.

Moonrise struggles narrative-wise, too. It starts cogently enough, but by the end it has all but flown off the rails in a messy explosion of pernickety farce. We’re subjected to a reedy, hipster-Magnolia deus-ex-machina; a religious invocation that PT Anderson – the other great white hope of modern American cinema – gets away with because his passion seeps over, through and under his style. While W. Anderson’s boxy camera moves around the family stead impress on a technical level – and mimic the God-like drift of Dreyer in Ordet – they lack clout, and betray an absence of interest from the director to get down and dirty with his characters; he’s all artful distance.

Darkness lingers in the shadows (parental infidelity, depression, whispers of electro-shock therapy) but never emerges to assail the viewer on an emotional level. Perhaps that queasy vagueness is Anderson’s intention, but to me it seems like a cop-out. The (quaintly soundtracked) mood of the 60s bangs on the door, but never gets in. Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, a debut which initially looked callowly in hock to Anderson’s oeuvre, seems close to the real deal in the light of this effort; it finally parked the tweeness in favour of confronting grave familial sadness head-on.

One can only hope that a filmmaker with such obvious talent circumvents further creative putrefaction, and looks to do something outside his comfort zone – perhaps a genre shuffle or new collaboration. However, few other comfort zones in Hollywood are as luxuriantly upholstered; Anderson’s followers are so loyal – and vocal – that he might just be tempted to carry on down this well worn path. As in almost any instance, it might just be beneficial to listen Steely Dan.

Moonrise Kingdom is in cinemas now.

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