The French Dispatch
aka The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
More a trifle than a Grand Bouffe, The French Dispatch is every bit as dry and distancing as The Grand Budapest Hotel was warm and welcoming, as if Wes Anderson’s set upon pushing as far as he possibly can in his studiously stylised direction, just to see how many are willing to come along for the ride. He’s done stories within stories before, but they’ve never been as conspicuously detached as they are here. Perhaps Wes watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and decided it was a good way to develop some sketchy ideas. However, one gets the impression a series of five-minute tableaux running to 100 minutes would be the ideal form for such aesthetic/ intellectual posing.
The tableaux abound here anyway, of course, along with varying aspect ratios, switches from black-and-white to colour and back again, Richard Scarry building fronts (complete with moving parts and people), and the clockwork consequences of Alexandre Desplat’s score. The French Dispatch is a Wes Anderson movie for those who can’t get enough of Wes Anderson movies. Which means I enjoyed it – I am, by and large, a fan – but at the same time, I was conscious of an encroaching sense of thinly-stretched schtick. That the elastic band might snap at any moment. For many former adherents it long since has, exhausted that he has no interest whatsoever in providing whatever it is they’re looking for (maturity, ditching the irony and kitschy quirk; none of these moves are a good idea, if you can only adopt such a mantle in a faux-manner, as Edgar Wright has discovered). Myself, I’m happy enough he has no interest in bending over backwards at the behest of his critics.
Indeed, some are fond of citing the halcyon days of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, when Anderson had one foot in a world of people vaguely resembling the real thing; it was only with The Royal Tennenbaums (his best, with The Grand Budapest Hotel) that I climbed fully aboard his train, so such a move would have little appeal to me. There are those I have reservations about – The Life Aquatic never quite finds a groove so winds up strangely inert; Fantastic Mr Fox messes too much with source material I adore; Moonrise Kingdom is a littletoo preoccupied with its juvenile protagonists – but I generally look forward to each new entry in his canon, and when I haven’t (Isle of Dogs), I’ve been pleasantly surprised. So even Anderson parodying Anderson, as we’re almost experiencing here, has an appeal.
The presentation is expectedly meticulous – Anjelica Huston narrates introductions to the titular newspaper, publishing a final edition after its editor (Bill Murray’s Arthur Howitzer Jr) dies. The paper will comprise several articles from past editions, and an obit. As is invariably the case with a portmanteau production, some segments are more successful others, and going back to the five-minute tableaux notion, I believe Anderson would have been better keeping them short but sweet, as per Owen Wilson’s The Cycling Reporter (3/5), presenting the changes (or lack thereof) in the town of Ennui (geddit) before disappearing suddenly down a subway entrance on his bike. The French Dispatch is only 103 minutes, but feels twenty longer thanks to its deliberately unhurried posture.
Like the Three Bears’ porridge, Anderson only gets one of his three articles just right, and it’s the first. The others have a strong idea (revolutionary student revolt) or strong performances (Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber) but not both. In The Concrete Masterpiece (4.5/5), Adrien Brody’s art dealer Julian Cadazio discovers Benicio del Toro’s incarcerated artist Moses Rosenthaler and makes him a sensation. There are expected – but amusing – barbs directed at abstract portraiture (Julian had Moses quickly sketch a perfect sparrow to prove he actually had a skill set) and the purity of motive in the artist’s choice of nude muse (Moses gets a slap for his over-attentiveness).
Tony Revolori appears in a charming shot where his younger Moses swaps places with del Toro’s elder one (the latter is perfectly called upon to inhabit that shambling, semi-coherent man-monster persona of his). Tilda Swinton delivers one of her classic cartoons as Dispatch writer JKL Berensen. Brody, with his gangly, beaky, hangdog bearing, only ever really feels at home in Anderson productions. Léa Seydoux reminds you she’s much more talented than a thankless Bond girl role could allow (all the Bond alumni here – Seydoux, Jeffrey Wright, even Mathieu Amalric – fare significantly better in this picture, even though, in the latter’s case, he hardly registers). The portmanteau sequence really ought to offer a satisfying twist development, and this one’s – Moses’ much-awaited artwork is an immoveable fresco – is a more than decent one.
Revisions to a Manifesto (2.5/5) broaches the illusion of journalistic neutrality via Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) conducting an affair with revolting student Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) and amending his resistance manual. Political cynicism’s on display, but in such an offhand fashion, you could barely be label it acerbic, less still directed. The idea of conducting the 1968 revolution via chess moves is better as just that, an idea, than in execution, such that it’s an amusing relief when the impasse is broken and the “tear gas and rubber bullets” are broken out.
Chalamet has the hair for an Anderson caricature, but none of the exaggerated personality; as far as the younger contingent goes, less-well-catered-for Anderson regulars Revolori and Saoirse Ronan (the latter presumably cast so Anderson could get her in a saucy showgirl outfit) display the kind of presence Timmy sorely lacks. Still, with this and Call Me by Your Name, he is evidently eager to boost himself as an equal-opportunities naïf. McDormand’s solid as the emotionally-detached old maid, but this isn’t one of her indelible roles. Christoph Waltz appears in about one scene, with a scratchy beard.
The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner (3.5/5) finds Wright irresistibly inhabiting his best Orson Welles impression as a food journalist recounting a dinner with The Commissaire of the Ennui police force (Amalric) – served by the chef/officer Lieutenant Nescarrier (Stephen Park) – to a magnificently ’70s-styled TV interviewer (Liev Schreiber). Wright’s Roebuck Wright, incapable of reading a map, becomes entangled in the affair of the Commissaire’s kidnapped son Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal), which sounds like a perfect recipe, but it ends up ever so slightly overcooked, trying to be too clever for its own good. The animated chase interlude is an absolute winner, though.
Many of the extensive cast are offered little more than cameos. Other notables who barely get a look in – anyone would think this was a Malick movie, given the level of thankless involvement, just so they can bask in the light of Wes – include Elisabeth Moss, Griffin Dunne, Henry Winkler and returnees Jason Schwartzman, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban and Edward Norton. Jarvis Cocker also sings some French pop.
It goes without saying that Anderson continues untarnished by the Hollywood woke machine’s brush; such an eventuality would be as unlikely as his conforming to any kind of big studio narrative norm. If anything, he’s proved only more wilfully idiosyncratic in his attitudes. His next, however, features Guantanamo Hanks himself (or his brother/clone), Margot Robbie, Matt Dillon, Bryan Cranston and (yawn) Scarlett Johansson. It remains to be seen how mould-able they are to Anderson’s enduring vision, and if Asteroid City takes a similarly scattershot approach to steering a story as The French Dispatch.