“The French Dispatch”
Directed by Wes Anderson
Rated R (Language; Graphic Nudity; Some Sexual References)
Starts today at Laemmle Newhall and Regal Edwards Valencia
Wes Anderson makes very specific movies for very specific audiences. Foremost, one has to have a general comfort level with twee, a sort of cloying cuteness that is infuriating to some and catnip to others. One also has to accept the fact that Anderson knows more about popular and literary culture than you do, and he’s prepared to demonstrate just how many ways he can make you feel insufficient and disconnected from upper-crust civilization. For some, this is a learning experience and for others it’s patronizing one-upmanship.
Lastly, you better like your visual compositions to be symmetrical; this is one filmmaker who positions every aspect of the frame and what’s in it using the most precise of laser tape measures.
Personally, I await Wes Anderson movies anxiously. No other modern filmmaker has such a specific style; any single frame from any one of his films will instantly identify it as from his hand and eye. I also find that I am educated rather than alienated by his countless obscure allusions. That said, Anderson’s work is hardly infallible. His two animated films, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Isle of Dogs” were both overlong and dull, and he has been rightly accused of putting style over substance, particularly emotional substance. As a result, his films are usually downright chilly.
Alas, “The French Dispatch” is closer to his two animated productions in overall quality than his masterpieces “Rushmore” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” In other words, his new film is bloated, surprisingly boring, and even more emotionally removed than usual. Don’t go into this movie expecting to feel anything other than the wonder of Anderson’s usual jaw-dropping production design by Adam Stockhausen and artful cinematography by Robert D. Yeoman.
The film is a compilation of three short stories that have all been published in The French Dispatch, a fictional magazine inspired by The New Yorker and its colorful menagerie of feature articles and authors. It starts out with a bang as Angelica Huston narrates a hilarious and kinetic history of the magazine, its eccentric founder and editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Anderson regular Bill Murray), and Ennui-sur-Blasé, the wittingly named town where the magazine is based. The initial 10 minutes of the film are as funny and fast-paced as anything Anderson has ever done. From there, the film breaks off into its series of three short tales.
This first one is the most involving with Benicio del Toro as a violently insane yet brilliant painter, Léa Seydoux as his prison guard-cum-muse, and Adrien Brody as his ruthless art dealer. Anderson is dead-on in his satirical take on tortured artists and the pseudo-intellectual world of art collecting. The grand finale of the story is particularly impressive as the snooty world of the connoisseur meets the bricks and bats of the long-term incarcerated in an absurd and hilarious tableau that only Anderson could have concocted successfully.
Regretfully, the other two stories offer fewer rewards. In the second story, Timothée Chalamet is totally blank and annoying as a student reactionary protesting against one thing or another, and Frances McDormand is uncharacteristically wooden as the reporter who becomes personally entangled with the student’s phantom causes. The third story about a wonder-chef and his involvement with a young boy’s kidnapping is also disappointing and overlong. By the time the film’s running time is up, one hopes there will be no fourth tale to be told.
Wes Anderson’s films are usually so relentlessly paced and lively, but the stunning production design and inventive photography can’t support the stagnant narratives that encompass two-thirds of “The French Dispatch.” At the end of the day, the film is – dare I say? – boring. And unlike his best films that have some kind of compelling central character and emotional pull (however limited), there is really nothing to hold onto here. Part of the problem is the short-story structure of the film, but even in that format, a small rooting interest and audience emotional investment is not too much to ask from a filmmaker.
This time Anderson’s film isn’t just chilly; it’s almost frozen.
Jed Blaugrund is an English teacher at West Ranch High School, and a resident of Stevenson Ranch. Before becoming a teacher, he graduated from the USC School of Cinema/Television and worked for more than 20 years in the film business.