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Director's quirky work has lost its early bloom

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I've always had a bit of a movie crush on Wes Anderson, the ineffably odd American director. But halfway through his latest film, I realized that I didn't know what to do with my swoony cinematic feelings anymore.

Moonrise Kingdom is a perfect little diorama of a film, a super-stylized world in which two runaway kids stir up an imaginary New England island. Everything is represented with intricate, obsessive care and rare beauty, and at first I was transfixed by the usual Andersonian trademarks. There are long tracking shots with all sorts of hijinkery going on in the background. There are solemn, self-possessed children, hapless adults and forlorn animals.

There's an idiosyncratic music mix -- this time it's tinkling neo-chamber pieces crossed with Hank Williams and Benjamin Britten. There's wistful nostalgia for a time of ticking-stripe pillows and plaid blankets and nuns who look like nuns and kids who play Chinese checkers on rainy afternoons. There are record players and reel-to-reel tapes and binoculars. And there's old-timey lingo: "Lose the snappy attitude!"

One moment, I found all these Andersonian details deeply reassuring, and the next moment they were starting to irk me. How did this happen?

Attitudes to Anderson tend to divide into two camps. He's either an ingenious and completely original auteur or a wildly irritating prep-school boy. I'm getting to the untenable point where I feel like he's both at once, and it's making my head hurt. After a 14-year relationship -- I first saw Rushmore in 1998 -- the things that made me fall in love are now the same things that are driving me mad.

Could it be, I find myself thinking, that Anderson's quirkiness has a paint-by-numbers quality? The release of Moonrise Kingdom has inspired an Internet game called "Wes Anderson Bingo," in which the cards are covered with squares like "stylish neckwear," "vintage eyeglasses," "dated audio equipment," "absent parent" and "Bill Murray." Try the Wes Anderson drinking game and take a slug every time you spot one of these tropes: You'd be legless by the 12-minute mark.

And is it possible that Moonrise Kingdom is a slightly twee look at emotionally disturbed children? Flashback montages suggest that the two unhappy brink-of-puberty protagonists might have issues with pyromania and poor impulse control, and yet they are portrayed as winsome little philosophes.

Anderson's non-stop quirk-a-thon and deadpan-funny look at family dysfunction didn't always bug me. Rushmore's main character was a mess of eccentricities. (Who can forget his high school drama production of Serpico?) And The Royal Tenenbaums absolutely traded in tragicomic parent-child pain. (Take the scene in which Gene Hackman gathers the children together to talk about separating from their mother and rather memorably tells them that, yes, it is their fault.) That was great stuff.

Then came The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. It was a diverting ride, with an astonishing cross-sectioned boat and David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese and a rather miraculous encounter with a jaguar shark. But I was beginning to understand Roger Ebert's deeply puzzled assessment. "The damnedest film," he wrote. "I can't recommend it, but I would not for one second discourage you from seeing it."

For me, The Darjeeling Limited felt a bit like a charming but claustrophobic train ride with endless mounds of metaphorical Louis Vuitton luggage. I had a second honeymoon with Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson's wondrous stop-action animal cartoon, which is, oddly, his most mature film. But with Moonrise Kingdom, I'm wondering if I can ever get back that loving feeling.

The house in Moonrise Kingdom is called Summer's End, which is essentially the theme of all of Anderson's films. His particular genius is the imaginary re-creation of past times, infused with the melancholy knowledge of the end of innocence. So maybe I should just accept that my affection for his films will be sweeter in retrospect than in present actuality.

Ah, lost love.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 E3

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