This one takes “awkward deadpan farce” to a new level. Since we’re obviously lampooning throughout, after a while it’s hard to tell exactly what we’re making fun of, since nobody’s being “the straight man” to take the hits. Is it possible to make fun of making fun? And can it be done without anyone ever smiling?
The all-star cast under veteran weirdo director Wes Anderson (see “The Royal Tenenbaums”) includes Bill Murray and Frances McDormand as Walt and Laura, the dysfunctional attorney parents, always quoting case law, rarely spending any quality time with each other or their children, who somehow find their way by listening to instructional records about orchestras. But their oldest, Suzy (Kara Hayward), who would be rebellious, except in the mid-1950s, somehow doesn’t know how. So she develops a correspondence romance with the local nerd, Sam (Jared Gilman), wherein they plan to happily run off together.
Sam is a member of the “Khaki Troop” (obviously Boy Scouts), run like a military camp by an eighth-grade teacher off for the summer, played straight-faced by Edward Norton. He’s teaching his boys camping skills, and is proud of the progress they’ve made, even if he does have them lining up their tents in straight rows and serving him breakfast every morning, and one of the lucky boys gets to be his personal valet and hand him his uniform scarf every morning. All this seems pretty harmlessly silly until Sam and Suzy actually activate their plan and run off with each other, sending her parents into apoplexy and the whole “Khaki” troop into a frenzy looking for them. Also, the local police chief (played tongue-in-cheek with high-rise pants and white socks by Bruce Willis), who’s been having an affair with Laura, gets into the search, as does the Khaki commander, played with silly seriousness by Harvey Keitel.
Suzy and Sam are supposed to be 12-year-olds, but they seem a bit precocious, sexually: they sit around in their underwear together, they kiss, and once, she invites him to feel her “chest,” then assures him that they’re probably going to grow some more. This scene is either touchingly awkward (pun intended) or infuriatingly exploitative, depending on how you feel about kids doing this type of thing in front of the camera. This may even border on child pornography, depending on your definition, but does putting it in a farcical context make it more palatable, somehow? Are we less voyeuristic if we’re trying to be ironic?
There will be a lot of mixed reactions to this film. And there will be outrage, some of which might even be welcomed as delicious inadvertent publicity. Those who really do think of “first love” as something tender and nostalgic might even feel that the treatment here is understated, as if these kids were so innocent that they didn’t even know how to get themselves in trouble.
It would be another kind of commentary on what we have become inured to, should this whole thing generate no controversy at all.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.