Wes Anderson is quite the auteur; even the man and his dog in the street would recognise his idiosyncratic, pleasing visual style, usually accompanied by a wry, humorous voice-over. When it works, as in Rushmore, The Royal Tennenbaums or The Life Aquatic, it makes for a fun trip to the cinema, with lots of stars, silly incident and nostalgic talking points. When it goes wrong, as in overstuffed animated films The Fantastic Mr Fox or Isle of Dogs, the good humour curdles; his latest, The French Dispatch, lands somewhere between the two.
Anderson has accumulated a repertory company of stars that garland his narratives; we love to see Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe and many others. They’re all here, but most of them barely have a scene or two, and we’re left in the company of some hammy players like Adrien Brody and Tilda Swinton, who hog the limelight and run down the clock in annoying fashion. There’s no central narrative here; three stories about the fictional Kansas magazine The French Dispatch, one involving a child’s kidnapping, a student revolution organised by chess-master (Timothee Chalamet), and another about an artist (Benicio del Toro) whose paintings of nude jailer (Lea Seydoux) shock the art world. The prompt for this reverie is the death of the magazine’s owner (Murray), and the general mood is for nostalgia for times that may not ever have existed.
The French Dispatch ends with a roster of dedications, ranging from Harold Ross to James Thurber; great figures to highlight, sure, but one wonders what such seminal wits would have made of the wooliness and self-indulgence of Anderson’s movie. Writing and journalism aren’t things that naturally lend themselves to film, and The French Dispatch is strangely coy about the actual work. Some of the gags feel too obscure and personal to land, although Frances McDormand has some fun as a predatory reporter and Jeffrey Wright steals the show as a loquacious author in the Alistair Cooke school of rumbling veracity.
Never boring, always entertaining; isn’t that enough for a movie in 2021? While any kind of accomplished comedy is there to be lauded, it’s a shame Anderson doesn’t have a tighter editorial control over his material, or any desire to comment on today’s world. A slight nostalgia piece, The French Dispatch will amuse fans, but may not appeal to those who responded to the director’s more purposeful dramatic pieces. And even devotees may be frustrated at wheeling out the likes of well-loved players such as Henry Winkler, Elisabeth Moss and Bob Balaban, and barely giving them a line of dialogue each.
The French Dispatch opens in UK cinemas on October 22 2021.
Thanks to Searchlight Pictures UK for advanced access to this title.