The French Dispatch (2021)

When I was a teenager, I thought of Wes Anderson as a singular genius who made esoteric art films for in-the-know sophisticates.  In my thirties, I now see him for what he actually is: a populist entertainer.  The fussed-over dollhouse dioramas that typify Anderson’s visual style often distract from the qualities that make his films so popular & rewatchable: they’re funny.  Laughing my way through his new high-style anthology comedy The French Dispatch felt like a rediscovery of the heart & humor that always shine in Anderson’s work but are often forgotten in retrospect as we discuss the consistency of his visual quirks.  People often complain about how visually lazy mainstream comedies are, and here’s a film packed with Hollywood Celebrities where every scene is overloaded with gorgeous visuals and hilarious jokes.  You can access it at practically any strip mall multiplex, right alongside the superhero & animated-animal sequels that otherwise crowd the marquee.  No one else is making films exactly like Anderson’s, but everyone stands a chance of being entertained by them.

Judging by the wraparound segments of The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson appears to be self-aware of his usefulness in presenting Art Film aesthetics to wide audiences.  The titular literary magazine is written by high-brow artsy types in the fictional town of Ennui, France, but is published as a newspaper insert in the farmlands of Kansas.  The film is structured like a magazine layout, with light humorous moodsetters, standalone articles of in-depth culture writing, and a heartfelt obituary to cap it all off.  The deceased is the magazine’s editor, whose death makes the entire film feel like a love letter to the lost art of editing at large, in the age of ad-driven clickbait production.  Mostly, though, it’s all just a platform for rapidfire joke deliveries from talented celebrities dressed up in gorgeous costumes & sets.  The anthology structure makes it play like a warmer, more frantic version of Roy Andersson’s sketch comedies, except the presence of household names like Frances McDormand & Benicio Del Toro means that more than a couple dozen people will actually watch it.  And they’ll laugh.  The French Dispatch may be more-of-the-same from Wes Anderson, but it really helped clarify how much I value him as a comedic filmmaker – even if he’d likely rather be referred to as a “humorist”.

Scrolling through this ensemble comedy’s massive cast list, it’s easy to distinguish which new additions to the Wes Anderson family feel at home among the returning players (i.e., Jeffrey Wright as a James Baldwin stand-in) vs. which ones were invited to the party merely because they’re celebrities (i.e., Liev Schreiber as the talk show host who interviews Wright).  It’s much more difficult to single out which performer is the film’s MVP.  Tilda Swinton is the funniest; Henry Winkler is the most surprising; Benicio del Toro is the most emotionally affecting.  It’s likely, though, that the film’s true MVP is newcomer Timothée Chalamet as a scrawny political idealist who incites a vague yet violent student’s revolution on the streets of Ennuii with no clear political goal beyond the fun of youthful rebellion.  It’s not that Chalamet is any stronger of a presence than this fellow castmates, but his Teen Beat heartthrob status outside the film is highly likely to draw some fresh blood into Anderson’s aging, increasingly jaded audience.  The general reaction to The French Dispatch indicates that adult audiences who’ve been watching Wes Anderson since the 1990s are tiring of his schtick. Meanwhile, teenage girls hoping to get a peek at their favorite shirtless twink are perfect candidates for newfound, lifelong Anderson devotion.  He worked best on me when I was that age, anyway.

The French Dispatch is dense & delightful enough that I’m already excited to watch it again, which is exactly how I felt when I first watched titles like Rushmore & The Life Aquatic in my teens.  It might be my favorite of his film since The Royal Tenenbaums, or at least it feels like a perfect encapsulation of everything he’s been playing with since then.  There’s a high likelihood that I walked out of Moonrise Kingdom & The Grand Budapest Hotel with this same renewed enthusiasm for his work, and I’ve merely forgotten that immediate elation in the few years since.  Regardless, I don’t know that I’ve ever so clearly seen him as one of America’s great comedic filmmakers the way I do now.  His visual & verbal joke deliveries in this latest dispatch are incredibly sharp & consistently funny.  Many scenes start as fussed-over dollhouse dioramas shot from a cold, clinical distance.  Those neatly segmented spaces tend to fill with oddly endearing goofballs, though, and you can tell he’s having the most fun when he’s feeding them punchlines.

-Brandon Ledet

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