Friday, November 26, 2021

Movie Review: Wes Anderson’s Trifling, Insular “French Dispatch”

Wes Anderson may never make a movie quite as inconsequential as “The French Dispatch,” opening in local theaters Friday. I almost don’t mean this as an insult, though it’s hard to avoid such a connotation: It’s a trifle, a gewgaw, a $25 million vanity project whose potential admirers are limited to longtime subscribers of the New Yorker. And if you’re a historian of the New Yorker—the kind of reader who collects yellowing issues from the ‘50s and ‘60s—the movie is most pointedly for you: You will watch and re-watch, freeze-framing the movie at home for the Easter eggs.

I happen to fall into the former category, a 10-year New Yorker subscriber with a passing knowledge of its frontier legacy in long-form magazine writing, so I enjoyed it enough. As for the rest of America? It’s a hard sell, and most likely a hard pass.

“The French Dispatch” is cutely—preciously, you might say—structured like an issue of the titular magazine, an offshoot of a Kansas newspaper published by an eccentric American expatriate in Paris (Bill Murray). It is 1975, the occasion of the editor’s death, and we’re treated to his obituary, followed by a breezy account of Parisian city life that echoes the New Yorker’s vintage Talk of the Town section, then three illustrated features from the publication’s archive.

These stories, presented largely in black-and-white, are the heart of “The French Dispatch”—a self-effacing triptych that will largely decide the fate of the film in the eyes of most. Drolly amusing and creatively visualized, the first is by far the most successful: Tilda Swinton’s J.K.L. Berensen reports on Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), a mentally ill abstract artist and incarcerated double-murderer who finds his muse in the form of prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux), and who enjoys a mid-career revival after being discovered by art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody).

The following story is the weakest segment of “The French Dispatch,” a tedious account of a reporter (Frances McDormand) sleeping with her subject (Timothee Chalamet), a revolutionary in the May 1968 student uprisings, while trying to maintain the elusive “journalistic neutrality.” Obtuse and gnomic in its exploration of this flashpoint in European history, the story is weighed down by some of Anderson’s most affected direction (and that’s saying something) and twee recasting of real-life conflict: In Anderson’s version, it’s a revolution waged on chessboards. Yawn.

Anderson splits the difference between the first two stories with his final entry, a spottily entertaining account of a food writer (Jeffrey Wright) who, while reporting on a police commissioner’s chef, finds himself at the center of a kidnapping plot.

The movie is a cornucopia so overflowing with stars that many of them are all but wasted. Elisabeth Moss, as a copy editor at the magazine, has maybe five lines, which is well north of the number granted to Willem Dafoe, as a criminal accountant who appears in a couple of scenes in the final feature. I completely missed Saoirse Ronan in that same entry, as “Principal Showgirl.”

This has partly to do with Anderson’s elevation of artifice, referentiality and impossibly tidy visuals over fusty concerns of recognizably human performances. His technique is a smorgasbord of self-conscious zoom shots, freeze frames, animations and split-screens, and his generic template melds 1940s policiers with silent-film comedy, Jacques Tati and the French New Wave. He immerses us in a mythic Paris and a mythic magazine office, and it’s indisputably lovely to look at.

Indeed, the film is never boring, except for the McDormand/Chalamet entry. But as often as characters cry in “The French Dispatch,” no such tears feel authentic. There’s a stillborn quality to the entire endeavor, so that even the forays into slapstick humor feel mannered, never quite permitted to skid off the rails. This is Anderson’s cactus-dry wit distilled.

What stuck with me most is the ambient appreciation for writing and editing in those cumbersome pre-digital days. There’s a hallowedness to the process, as depicted in the broadly colorful moments before, between and after the monochromatic mini-movies: the editor’s marginalia scribbled in red pen, a writer clacking away at a typewriter in bed, wadded-up paper tossed into a wastebasket. Anderson’s affection for the New Yorker and the glory days of magazine journalism is clear and warm—the latter not being an adjective often associated with his work—but ultimately not enough to save the movie from itself.


For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.

John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Related Articles

Latest Articles