Movies spotlighting characters who are fiercely individualistic always have appealed to me. For after all, we live in a culture in which conformity is the norm, in which one is expected to do what one is told without asking questions. Sometimes, cinematically-speaking, those who do ask questions become heroes. Sometimes, they become victims. But their stories are more interesting to me, just so long as those stories are well-told.
One current film, Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM, is just the kind of film that I should like. It is the tale of two children, one male and the other female, who are on the cusp of adolescence. They live in a world in which conformity rules. However, they meet and, clearly, there is a kinship between them. So they end up running away together.
There are two major problems with MOONRISE KINGDOM. The first has to do with the on-screen portrayal of budding sexuality, and the sexual attraction between these two children. This, I felt, was completely unnecessary. The second relates to the script, or, I should say, the lack of one. Granted, MOONRISE KINGDOM is not your average contemporary Hollywood movie, where script and characterization lag way behind dazzling but ultimately meaningless visuals. But as these youngsters meander about, I only could ask myself: Where is this film’s script? Why do too many sequences and bits of dialogue seem to be little more than filler? Now for sure, there are some clever touches here, but why am I quickly becoming bored with what is unfolding onscreen?
Also, MOONRISE KINGDOM has in its cast some wonderful performers, including Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, and Harvey Keitel. For the most part, they have nothing whatsoever to do. They are not so much playing characters as character types, and these are types that most any actor of a certain age or appearance could play. In other words, the very special talents of these performers are pretty much wasted here. The one exception, actually, is Bruce Willis, who plays a sympathetic policeman: just about the only adult character in MOONRISE KINGDOM who is more than just a surface cliché.
Regarding films about characters who exist outside the norm, one recent film that is fresh and satisfying, and that indeed has a carefully thought-out script, is JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME, released earlier this year and currently available on DVD. The title character is a thirtysomething man who doesn’t have a job, hasn’t dated since high school and, as the title says, still lives with his widowed mother.
What makes Jeff an interesting character is his approach to life, his determination to follow his own path, the manner in which he goes about accomplishing this-- and the manner in which he is presented in the story. His mother and older brother constantly are on his case regarding his lifestyle. Both are more, well, traditional, in that they hold jobs and follow the rules. But beneath the surface, both are suffering. Both are quietly, desperately unhappy, and the manner in which their stories, and Jeff’s story, play themselves out makes for a film that is extremely likable. And the bottom line is that JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME works as well as it does because of its screenplay and its characters, and how those characters evolve.
JEFF, WHO LIVES AT HOME is written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, otherwise known as the Duplass brothers: independent filmmakers whose stock is fast rising on the American film scene, and for good reason.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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