This film probably needs little introduction after getting a warm welcome at Cannes and playing well with its per-theater-gross as it moves from limited to a more expansive release. I like Wes Anderson’s films for the most part. I’m not a fan of The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited, but the rest of his filmography is a good range of light entertainment (Rushmore and Bottle Rocket) to impressive achievement (The Fantastic Mr. Fox) to near 4-star pictures (The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom).
I want to talk in this post about comedy, because Moonrise Kingdom is an exemplary film when it comes to varied punchlines. Comedy is, in my opinion, one of the hardest things to write and hardest genres to film. Our sense of comedy changes by the minute – what was funny a month ago isn’t necessarily funny now. Below is, as I see it, a list and description of the myriad ways in which Anderson gets a laugh from his audience:
Frame jokes aren’t easy. David Bordwell had a post about Shaun of the Dead claiming that the frame is what makes the joke: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2007/04/30/funny-framings/
In classes I’ve taught I’ve frequently used an example in American Movie where the lead character – Mark Borchardt – gives an interview during a break from the filming of his disastrous independent horror film. He’s framed in a medium shot and then suddenly lifts his hand into frame…and he’s holding a beer. The frame obscures the fact that he’s drinking, making it all the more funny when we realize it.
Anderson uses it differently than both of these guys and the best example is with Bob Balaban who plays the narrator. It’s hard to find a good image online, but Anderson frames him at the bottom of the frame, very awkwardly, with a huge wide-shot behind him. The effect is that Balaban a) is overwhelmed by his surroundings, and b) appears to be peeking into the shot like a character who was forgotten.
This is not dissimilar from the point above, but I want to separate them because Anderson uses both techniques so specifically. A great example of comedy-in-depth:
Anderson frames on Walt Bishop’s (Bill Murray) three sons in the foreground. In the background, Bishop descends the stairs. He’s shirtless and carrying a liquor bottle. He walks frame left and takes an axe out of the closet. He walks out frame right.
Sure, this is funny for a number of reasons – the ridiculous props, the matter-of-fact performance – but it’s mostly funny because Anderson keeps the three boys in the foreground oblivious to what’s going on in-depth behind them. The contrast between planes of action is hilarious.
Two great examples. Sam (Jared Gilman) asks Suzy (Kara Hayward) “Are your ears pierced?” She stares at him. CUT TO Sam awkwardly piercing her ears with fish hooks. The edit answers the question and the edit/action-based answer is much funnier than any “yes” or “no” that Suzy could give back.
Example number 2: Social Services (Tilda Swinton) speaks with Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) and Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) about sending Sam to an orphanage. Anderson cuts to a static image of a ridiculously sad looking newspaper article about orphans. The article itself – in the context itself – is funny (it’s overtly sad). But it’s the CUT back to Swinton where she is still smiling that’s funny. The joke? Swinton has seen all of this before. She’s not affected by a comically morose newspaper article anymore. Instead she’s all business and fake-smiley disposition.
As with any Anderson film, children act strangely as adults. It’s not so strange once you think about it. The kids are playing make-believe and they just take themselves seriously. But it’s the nearly pervasive deadpan and comedic earnestness that makes the way the characters move and deliver lines funny.
Every person in a Wes Anderson film takes his or her job seriously. Whether that job be scout master, mail carrier or runaway, it’s all done with the utmost care and determination. It’s funny to watch a boy and girl, alone in the wilderness, seriously pitch a camp as though they’re a couple on vacation. It’s funny to watch Scout Master Ward plow through the oncoming storm in a one-man motor boat on his way to save the day. Were Anderson’s characters to wink at us during any of this it would lose its charm. We’d be too in on the joke and the comedic distance would lessen and dissolve altogether.
An easy example – close to the edit. Suzy reads a book to Sam and he falls asleep. Later, we begin in a medium shot of Suzy and Sam and she again reads him a book. This time, the camera dollies (I think. It might zoom) out and reveals that she is, in fact, reading to the whole boy scout troop. Camera position A leads us to believe something that we’ve already seen and camera position B changes our belief.
Balaban’s narrator wears bright red. Suzy wears a pink dress. Both of these look so out of place when set against the brown and green of nature. Swinton’s Social Service’s office is blue-dominated. When set in split screen next to the yellow-ish call center the opposing color palettes feel worlds apart.
Anderson and Roman Coppola write funny lines. Jason Schwartzman telling his love-struck couple to walk away and think seriously about their decision to kind of be wed is hilarious (it’s also hilarious because of the aforementioned style with which he delivers his lines). Bishop responding to his wife’s question “Do you know that your daughter ran away,” with “That’s a loaded question,” is ludicrous and funny.
Sam and Suzy dance on a beach. This shot is funny for other reasons. They have a record player on the sand. But it’s also funny because of the physical comedy. Sam does a frenetic, Elaine Benes-dance. Suzy sways like she’s dancing to Serge Gainsbourg.
Todd Solondz is great at this. The camera doesn’t flinch or cut away as Sam and Suzy experience their first kiss, their first French kiss, and then “second base.” We’re forced to watch them grow up in real time and with them. It’s that awkward laugh at being made to voyeuristically view something you aren’t supposed to.
Tilda Swinton is named Social Services. Everyone calls Edward Norton Scout Master Ward and not by his first name. Harvey Keitel is Commander Pierce and Bruce Willis is Captain Sharp. In short, many people in Moonrise Kingdom are defined by their job. It keeps things overly formal at times, distanced at other times, and generally hilarious overall (imagine identifying everyone you know by their profession).
That’s a pretty decent list. Moonrise Kingdom is a very good film, which I enjoyed a whole lot more than I thought I might. It’s sweet, funny, sentimental, and more so than almost any other Anderson film, realistic-feeling.
One random question that I would love to ask Anderson: why the cut to the impossible angle (impossible in that a wall is where the camera is) which also, incidentally breaks the 180 line in Captain Sharp’s trailer when he has dinner with Sam? It was the only time in the entire film that I felt the shot selection was wrong. I’m really curious why he didn’t just choose to place the camera on the line and facing the wall. Seems odd.