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Perspective: Look beyond the facade in Wes Anderson’s films

Perspective: Look beyond the facade in Wes Anderson’s films
Jared Gilman, left, as Sam and Bruce Willis as Captain Sharp in Wes Anderson’s movie “Moonrise Kingdom.”
(Focus Features, Focus Features)

To varying degrees, all filmmakers create worlds. But when people say this of Wes Anderson — and invariably they do — they’re talking about an überspecific sensibility. With its handmade aesthetic, signature curios and saturated colors, the Anderson cosmos is identifiable in every frame of his films.

His seventh feature, the 1960s-set comic drama"Moonrise Kingdom,"bears all the hallmarks of his uncommon style, in perhaps their most compelling configuration. Since its prestigious slot as the opening-night selection at Cannes, the film has emerged as one of Anderson’s best-received productions. Beyond the enthusiastic critical response and muscular box-office performance is the way the dreamy-angsty tale of first love is connecting with people — charming even filmgoers who preface their praise with the qualifier that they don’t usually like Wes Anderson movies.

As in his preceding half-dozen features, Anderson doesn’t inflict moralistic lessons on his characters, but that’s not to say they skip through unscathed or without figuring out a thing or two. The film opens with the sound of a brewing storm, which will turn into a merciless hurricane named Maybelline. The young protagonists, determined to be together, will awaken to the power of destructive forces, and that’s not a bad thing.

PHOTOS: The unique filmmaking style of Wes Anderson

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In collaboration with a core ensemble in front of and behind the camera, the Texas-born writer-director has crafted one of the most distinctive bodies of work in contemporary cinema. And when a body of work is readily identifiable, it’s also ripe for parody. In anticipation of the release of “Moonrise Kingdom,” online magazine Slate devised Wes Anderson Bingo, pinpointing the trademark ingredients that appear in just about every Anderson film, beginning with his 1996 debut, “Bottle Rocket” — among them the childish adult, slo-mo shot set to music, precocious child, ethnic stereotype and beret.

The list in the form of a game (board games being yet another Anderson fave, most vividly conjured in the closet packed with them in “The Royal Tenenbaums”) is both an affectionate sendup and a reminder that his films tend to polarize audiences, who respond to his symbology as either a magic-tinged language or a worn-out shtick.

If you can’t get past the carefully curated surfaces of Anderson’s movies, his tales of broken families and not-quite-coming-of-age can have an airless, hermetic quality or feel overly precious. The authorial flourishes become tics, the visual motifs fetishes that serve only to distance viewers from the wounded heart of the stories he tells.

But it’s that vulnerability that Anderson imitators rarely get.

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Sometimes it takes a second viewing for the tenderness behind the façade to fully register, for the museum gallery of types in “Tenenbaums,” for example, to become animated by the director’s compassion. The artificiality of his films’ surfaces expresses a childhood ache for a fantasy world. Beneath the whimsy of the jaguar shark and crayon ponyfish (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”), Dalmatian mice (“Tenenbaums”) and star-speckled apples (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”) lies an idealistic yearning. The movies embody a longing for escape but aren’t escapist.

With his pitch-perfect casting and gentle, unfashionably raunch-free comedy (“No Vulgar Language Allowed,” a barroom sign announces in “Bottle Rocket”), Anderson constructs characters that are specific to his stylized terrain but which defy caricature. If detractors see something cartoonish in them, it’s probably because of the formal, nonvernacular way that many of them speak. In a recent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Anderson said that his “interest as a writer [is] a sentence that’s got a surprise in the way it’s put together.”

The subdued, borderline flat-affect tone of Anderson’s dialogue (his writing partners have included Owen Wilson, Noah Baumbach and Roman Coppola) is an example of the way artificiality cuts to the essence in his films; life’s most devastating confessions and confrontations so often transpire under cover of the utmost politeness. This facet of his work lends his stories a singular comic poignancy when his teenage characters try to approximate adult-speak, notably in “Moonrise” and his second feature, “Rushmore.”

Max Fischer, the obnoxious/endearing 15-year-old protagonist of “Rushmore” (a career-launching role for Jason Schwartzman), is a diminutive monument to extracurricular overkill. “You seem to have it figured out,” Bill Murray’s Mr. Blume tells him, the weight of grown-up disappointment in his every gesture and glance. Max hasn’t figured it out, of course; he may have landed a private-school scholarship after writing “a little one-act about Watergate,” but he’s still a motherless boy who wants to be loved.

“Moonrise” is a welcome return to form after 2007’s India-set “The Darjeeling Limited,” a beautifully designed but overly schematic work in which the filmmaker’s exploration of damaged adult children had run aground. The train journey of three brothers (Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody) features plenty of metaphorical baggage (monogrammed Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton), and revels in privilege without commenting on it, going so far as to use a poor local boy’s death for the central trio’s redemption. The flawed “Darjeeling” makes clear what nonfans object to in Anderson’s movies, but even so, its underlying emotion has resonance that deepens on second viewing. (And yes, “sibling rivalry” occupies a square on that bingo board.)

“Darjeeling” also opened up the controlled Anderson universe to real locations in a way that he hadn’t yet used them. It would be an exaggeration to call this the beginning of a documentary impulse in his work, but along with the goofy and disconsolate action-adventure in “unprotected waters” of “The Life Aquatic” (2004), a shift was under way — one that culminates in the wilderness escapades of “Moonrise.” Whether in Manhattan, the Mediterranean or New England, Anderson has long tweaked actual places to create his imaginary geography, never more effectively than with the fictional New Penzance Island (filming took place in Rhode Island), where the romance between Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) unfolds in summer 1965.

Sam is a literal orphan, Suzy a spiritual one, her parents’ marriage tattered and sad, as almost all marriages are in Anderson’s work. “Darjeeling” and “Tenenbaums” both involve fractured families forced back together by one member’s impulsive need. But in a departure from his previous films, the central duo of the new feature are not concerned with repairing existing family configurations, and therefore not despondent about a futile undertaking. Suzy and Sam, both friendless but for each other, leap into selfhood or their idea of what it means to be grown-up and independent.

With her stolen library books, Nouvelle Vague eye makeup and Françoise Hardy record, Hayward’s Suzy is the most fully realized female character in an Anderson movie since Olivia Williams’ teacher in “Rushmore.” It would be unfair to reduce her to a collection of retro affectations. A lover of fantasy novels, she is herself a character in a fantasy novel, embarking on a life-changing quest. Books have long been important to Anderson’s characters, and his latest film uses heightened reality, replete with elegiac deep-gold light, to page-turning effect.

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Critics and interviewers like to point out Anderson’s influences, from “Peanuts” to Truffaut, and the filmmaker eagerly cops to “stealing” from other auteurs. In a way, though, this is another way of getting stuck in the surface of his work. Anderson’s movies are alive with nostalgia in both content and form, but it’s their originality that makes people want to place him in a lineage and inspires others to copy him. When it comes to his and music supervisor Randall Poster’s use of pop and rock, the imitators usually achieve something closer to product placement than story enhancement.

The selections by Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams in “Moonrise Kingdom” are Anderson’s most inspired use of music yet. In one of the film’s most indelible scenes, Williams’ plangent yodeling on “Ramblin’ Man” can be heard in the background as Bruce Willis’ Captain Sharp has a heart-to-heart with Sam. Sharp is New Penzance’s one-man police force. His cop car is a station wagon, foreshadowing the new purpose it will have by story’s end — a transition that marks a breakthrough not just for the characters but for Anderson’s view of the generational divide.

The Williams song makes clear that heartache and longing are existential facts of adulthood, even as a hard-won hope slowly opens between Sam and the captain across the kitchen table of Sharp’s 1952 Spartanette trailer. There’s nothing precious or self-congratulatory about the vintage setting; it’s as rooted in the story as the Khaki Scouts camp that Sam has left and the cove that he and Suzy claim as their own. Across that table, neither Sam nor Sharp has to relinquish his oddness or buy into the lie that the past is ever really over.

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