All icing and no cake in Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch"
The French Dispatch
Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Christoph Waltz, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Willem Dafoe, Lois Smith, Saoirse Ronan, Cécile de France, Guillaume Gallienne, Jason Schwartzman, Tony Revolori, Rupert Friend, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban and Anjelica Huston. Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola and Hugo Guinness. Directed by Wes Anderson. Now playing in theatres everywhere. 107 minutes. 14A
Faithful readers of The New Yorker know the feeling. A copy of the magazine arrives in the mail, adorned with a gorgeous cover that rapturously evokes a place and mood and which hints of excellent stories within.
"This time," you tell yourself, "I'm going to read and love every story in this issue, not just the cartoons."
And then the tales fail to satisfy, for whatever reasons. It could be the subjects (a recent opus on adult circumcision enters the mind). It could be the writers. It could be — God forbid! — the reader.
So it goes with Wes Anderson's "The French Dispatch," a film inspired by his love of The New Yorker that is all icing and no cake. I say this with much sadness, since I adore Wes Anderson's fastidious manner, his obsessively curated and colourfully rendered retro images, his meticulous camera movements, his quirky and catchy pop soundtracks and his devotion to cinema as both a visual and aural medium. My review of Anderson's 2014 film "The Grand Budapest Hotel" lavishly described it as a dessert, delivering both icing and cake.
My main beef with "The French Dispatch" is that it's too much of everything and not enough of anything. Anderson has overloaded his film with actors, including such familiar troupers as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton, along with newcomers like Timothée Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright and Lyna Khoudri.
These are just some of the players; the film has such a surfeit of quality actors it tosses off cameos with the estimable likes of Saoirse Ronan, Willem Dafoe, Christoph Waltz and Elisabeth Moss, each of then jammed into Anderson's fanatically composed frames.
Multiple stories are told via an anthology format loosely connected to the fictional publication of the title, a supplement to the equally fictional Evening Sun newspaper of Liberty, Kansas (population 249 souls, according to current census data).
Indulgent yet demanding editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Murray), a character inspired by New Yorker co-founder Harold Ross, was so charmed by a visit to the quaint French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé he decided then and there to create and publish The French Dispatch.
He employs the best magazine writers of the age. He pays them lavishly and essentially gives them carte blanche to write about whatever they feel like, so long as it's erudite and of some cultural interest or significance, however minor. ("Just try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose," Howitzer wryly tells one writer.)
It's a fine idea for a film — the rollicking trailer certainly attests to that. But the ode-to-journalism conceit is soon abandoned in favour of increasingly absurd vignettes roughly dealing with artistic indulgence, Quixotic politics and inappropriate romances.
A psychiatrist would undoubtedly delight in parsing the intent of "The Concrete Masterpiece," in which Benicio Del Toro plays an imprisoned two-time murderer who creates impressionistic wall paintings in collaboration with his jailer/model (Leá Seydoux), who poses completely and gratuitously starkers. It dares the viewer to make comparisons with the Hans Christian Andersen fable, "The Emperor's New Clothes."
"Revisions to a Manifesto," another chapter, satirizes the youth/worker rebellions of May, 1968 Paris via a chess-playing revolutionary (Timothée Chalamet) and a maternal magazine writer (Frances McDormand), who also becomes the young rebel's unlikely lover.
Jeffrey Wright enlivens the concluding and most cuckoo final chapter, "The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner." He plays a writer, modelled after author James Baldwin and New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, who is drawn into a caper that includes a child kidnapping and a police chef.
Nimble of mind and gesture, Wright makes a strong addition to Anderson's stable, but there's only so much you can do with a screenplay, co-written by Anderson, Roman Coppola and Hugo Guinness, that scans as if it was thrown together to maximize the number of celebrity appearances. (Stanley Kramer's similarly star-studded 1963 comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" comes to mind, and not in a good way.)
The many foibles that used to make Wes Anderson films so charming have become, with "The French Dispatch" and "Isle of Dogs" before it, something of a tedious distraction.
I must beckon the psychiatrists again by noting that among the film's many morbid references to death is a celebrity who consumes poison because he's afraid of disappointing his fans. And look closely at the name Anderson gives his fictional French enclave, Ennui-sur-Blasé. It translates as "Boredom-on-Apathy."
It seems that with "The French Dispatch," Wes Anderson has finally wound his baroque analog timepiece so tightly he's unsprung the mainspring, slashing his own wrist.
But maybe — God forbid! — it's just me. 🌓