IMDB says...A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them.
The 73rd Virgin says... As noted in my five-sheep review of Wes Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”, whimsy is a delicate and dangerous approach for comedy, and that movie did it perfectly. Trying to bring a similar feel to a live-action movie, however cartoonish in presentation, must be even harder.
Whatever your comfort level with 12-year-olds exploring their underwear-clad sexuality in 1965, there are a lot of laughs in the first 60 minutes.
Sam Shukasky (everyone calls him by his last name) is a runaway Boy Scout (in this movie “Khaki Scout”), who whimsically cuts a hole in his tent to escape à la The Shawshank Redemption, while leaving the tent zipper zipped from the inside, much to the confusion of dim but utterly dedicated Scoutmaster Ward played by Ed Norton.
Sam is a curiously adult-like orphan boy hidden behind crooked spectacles, while in the background his fellow foster children roll up their cigarette packs in their T-shirt sleeves and work on vehicles. Sara is a blank-faced but knowing girl of about the same age. She is already described as “difficult”. They undergo a moment of instant recognition and deadpan love at first sight, and then begin a pen pal relationship which morphs into plans to run away together. Sara favors heavy blue eye makeup around huge but slightly out of kilter eyes inserted above a pugnacious jawline that juts out even further when she’s made up her mind to ruin her mother’s day.
Most of the humor derives from these two adolescents’ flat and matter of fact discussion of the mundane details of their escape plan or of topics far beyond their years. There are a few laugh out loud scenes, especially when he presents her with earrings made of fishhooks and scarab beetles. This is followed by a jump cut to her screaming in pain as he tries to pierce her ears. True to her character, with blood dripping down one side of her face, she says “do the other”. When the couple is later harassed by other scouts, she deploys scissors. Sara has funnier lines. Sam has the less shaded character with lines that mimic adults even more and are therefore less believable and less funny in this fanciful context.
Francis McDormand plays exasperated mothers really well. She and her husband Bill Murray are attorneys who are so distracted that they use a megaphone to communicate with Sara and her countless brothers at the house. Bruce Willis is a “dumb and sad” police Captain Sharp who sneaks around with McDormand and lives in a tiny trailer. All of these doofus adults are called to action to help find the runaways. Only Bob Balaban, who serves as the narrator and also as the Scouts merit badge counselor, for orienteering or something, knows the trail that they’re most likely to be traveling.
I know that Anderson and Roman Coppola were nominated for a screenplay Oscar, and some of the lines are awfully funny, but even with the understanding that this is whimsical, the storyline isn’t much. Harvey Keitel as a rival scoutmaster and Tilda Swinton as a child welfare functionary both seem broad and underwritten and inserted as afterthoughts. Swinton’s all blue outfit is probably funny to somebody “in the know”, but I don’t know who that is. Willis is allowed to play something besides wisecracking tough guy humor but it’s not enough to make the movie, and Bill Murray fans don’t have anything new to appreciate.
In the last third of the 94 minutes, the whimsy runs smack up against the need to actually finish the story, as must always happen in these situations. This movie doesn’t handle the transition very well and I found myself wishing it was over by about minute 75. The individual scenes get more disjointed and the humor gets more stilted, and the whole charming edifice kind of crumbles.
The first 60 minutes would be a funny TV show in the mold of maybe Northern Exposure, but after that, meh.
I must be in the minority, though, because Rotten Tomatoes is at 91% fresh and IMDB is at 7.9 stars. All right then.
Here’s the preview…