Of all the current filmmakers working today, I’m not sure that there is one with a more distinct style than Wes Anderson. Here’s what I mean by that: if there was some unearthed Anderson film the world had not seen, and you showed a scene of it, most people would be able to tell you who the director was. There’s something in the look, the dialogue, the score, the editing, and how it all blends together for a beautiful pastiche. I have often said that every frame of his 2012 masterpiece Moonrise Kingdom is so gorgeous that they could all go in an art museum. His failures (The Darjeeling Limited) are, at worst, “ambitious missteps” and his successes (The Royal Tannenbaums, Rushmore, The Grand Budapest Hotel and so on and so on and so on) are some of the best films of their years.
That is not to say that Anderson is not without his critics: people who think he is too cutesy or twee or quirky, sometimes at the sake of substance. I’m not dismissing all of those critics out of hand (though they all are wrong… and stupid… and probably ugly), but for those who do not like what Anderson has given, allow me to offer some advice about his latest film, The French Dispatch:
This film is not for you.
The full title of Wes Anderson’s newest film is actually, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun and I can feel the detractors rolling their eyes already. And I imagine this will be their reaction for the film’s entire running time, because this film is, simply put, the most Wes Anderson movie that Wes Anderson ever Wes Anderson-ed.
A love letter to journalism, The French Dispatch lays out the final issue of a newspaper supplement founded and edited by Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), who suffers a heart attack. Four stories are brought to the screen: a travelogue of the fictional French city of Ennui by Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), J.K.L. Berensen’s (Tilda Swinton) story of a prisoner and his artistic obsession with one of his guards, Lucina Krementz’s (Frances McDormand) reporting of a student uprising, and Roebuck Wright’s (Jeffrey Wright) story of an unlikely expert chef working in a police station.
If you are not a fan of Anderson, I can feel your rage seething over that last paragraph.
Like all Anderson films since 2001’s The Royal Tannenbaums, The French Dispatch gives the filmmaker an absolutely bananas cast to work with. Besides the names already mentioned. we have roles from Benicio Del Toro, Willem Dafoe, Timothee Chalamet, Saorise Ronan, Christolph Waltz, Adrien Brody, and a few people who haven’t been nominated for Oscars. All of these people give amazing performances, though what is so much fun is when the film allows stars to play off of each other: the relationship between Del Toro’s prisoner and Brody’s art dealer demanding he finish his latest work or the trist between McDormand and Chalamet made funnier when she begins to edit his manifesto.
But to me, the real ace in the hole here is Jeffrey Wright. His character’s “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” requires him to play the same person at two very distinct and different points in his life, as the man experiencing the story and then later recalling it for a television show. Wright plays both to perfection with different sets of style and grace and it is an absolute joy to watch. The fact that his character gets caught up in the most ridiculous of circumstances makes his suave demeanor all of the sillier, but also allows him to show some true moments of sorrow and anguish. In a cast full of Oscar winners, it’s Wright who I hope will get a supporting acting nomination this year.
It would be easy to imagine that Anderson has thought of himself in the Bill Murray role, without the whole dying stuff. Arthur Howitzer, Jr was a man who took a lot of insanely shaped pieces and would craft a beautiful picture with every issue and it’s hard not to think of Anderson as a collaborator in the same way. Take these gorgeous performances and an amazing soundtrack and score, mix in some art direction and the film shifts between color and black & white. A little touch here and there and it all turns out wonderfully.
That’s not to say this film doesn’t have its flaws. Wilson’s essay, the shortest, could have been easily removed and I may have enjoyed the film the same. And, on occasion, the film’s attempt to mix tones doesn’t work as well as we have seen in some of Anderson’s earlier works. The French Dispatch is not a perfect movie, but I’m not sure it’s supposed to me. Sure, the film can take five minutes when one would suffice, but isn’t that also what we love about some of our favorite authors? This film works in feeling like a literary magazine, which makes it a glorious tribute and smashing success for Anderson. And, yes, the material hits close, as I type on my keyboard hoping people will one day read this and take something from it. But I think this film is for anyone who wants to tell a story.
What’s amazing is that as good as this film is, it’s nowhere near the top of my Wes Anderson list. He just has so many films that come close (or reach) perfection. Without comment, here is my full list:
- The Royal Tannenbaums
- Moonrise Kingdom
- Isle Of Dogs
- The Grand Budapest Hotel
- The Fantastic Mr. Fox
- The French Dispatch
- Bottle Rocket
- The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou
- The Darjeeling Limited
The French Dispatch: 8.8/10