Ever since Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson’s films have been progressively and iteratively becoming fully ensconced in layers of his characteristic idiosyncratic style. Perhaps a case could be made that he’s been on this trajectory ever since he picked up a camera and that it was too difficult to fish it out from his early movies, such as Bottle Rocket or Rushmore, because this trajectory was never linear. It was exponential. As time went on and Anderson grew more confident behind the camera, his movies have slowly but surely transcended into a universe of their own, a universe of uber-quirky comedy underpinned by a visual aesthetic attempting to blur the line between live-action filmmaking and stop-motion animation, of which Anderson is also particularly fond (see Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs).
Therefore, at this point it is a fool’s errand to walk into a screening of a Wes Anderson production and expect anything else than a highly stylized and exceedingly formal visual aesthetic, a gargantuan ensemble cast of his habitués, an acquired comedic slant and thematic density rarely encountered within the landscape of what we commonly refer to as comedy. I think it would be a paradigm-shifting event at this point if Wes Anderson decided to scale down and make a simple movie well outside of his comfort zone and suffice it to say that The French Dispatch (or The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun) does not shift any paradigms here. In fact, it is impossible to recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have a frame of reference for Anderson’s previous work because – as we all hopefully know – Wes Anderson does not just make comedies. He makes Wes Anderson comedies. Hence, when I was asked at work if it was worth seeing the movie, I couldn’t in good faith respond with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. I had to begin with a question whether my interlocutor knew and liked Wes Anderson movies already and – more specifically – whether he was a fan of The Grand Budapest Hotel, because the best shorthand for The French Dispatch I could come up with at short notice was that it was the closest in spirit to his 2014 outing, only more so… and nowhere near as funny.
In fairness, I could at this point go all out and dismiss this movie completely as a wholesale failure to launch that could not hold the candle to the aforementioned The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I remembered was irreverent, lopsided and – most importantly – successful as a canonical comedy. However, I take little pleasure in just stating the obvious and telling you that I didn’t like something, or that the script has some issues I couldn’t vibe with or that some performances grated on me… or that Anderson himself was way out of his depth. I don’t believe it would be either informative or interesting to read, so I spent the last few days pregnant with this problem of figuring out how to tell you why I don’t think The French Dispatch is successful in a manner that goes beyond saying that it just doesn’t work.
After all, what is there not to work? On paper, you could sell me this movie and – again on paper – I would be very likely to enjoy it because I would probably expect a large ensemble cast in an anthology-styled comedy that also happens to say a few words about popular culture and politics to be enticing, at the very least. In isolation, the idea of observing Benicio Del Toro as an incarcerated loon whose talent for abstract painting brings him international acclaim and sends the critical community into an orgasmic frenzy is quite intriguing. The same goes for a story about a young revolutionary (Timothée Chalamet) and his romance with a journalist covering his story (Frances McDormand), the idea of journalism influencing activism and vice versa and how a political image becomes a product with a helping hand of the press. So why doesn’t this movie gel?
Well, let me use a musical analogy. If filmmakers are like musicians, then I imagine Wes Anderson would be a rough equivalent of a heavy metal guitarist. This is where most readers (who got this far) would likely raise an eyebrow because they can’t fathom a well-dressed dapper gentleman with a thing for bow ties could have anything in common with a long-haired black-clad shredder, but he does. Just like Anderson’s movies, what passes for heavy metal music (in its widest approximation) doesn’t appeal to everyone. You can’t recommend the latest album by Killswitch Engage to your teenage cousin who is still going through her Katy Perry phase and fully expect her to fall in love with Adam Dutkiewicz’s shredding and Jesse Leach’s emotive screaming. She might like it, but it’s not a given.
Anyway, I like to imagine Wes Anderson as a lead guitarist in a metalcore band, with his collaborators being equivalent to the bandmates and his movies being the band’s albums. So, if you know a little about music production, mixing or just the idea of generating sound using an electric guitar, you will probably know that good albums and great bands sound the way they sound because each instrument has its place in the mix. You’d be honestly surprised to find out that many bands known for their heavy and punchy sound don’t use anywhere as much gain on their amps as you might think. They use each other’s sound to bolster their collective output which makes them work great as a band on stage.
Now, imagine that Wes Anderson as that greasy-haired guitarist was once mixing and recording his albums in a way that sounded great because everyone knew their place, the sound had great definition and each band member contributed to the overall aural aesthetic of their work. But with each passing album, Wes Anderson would mess with his amp and turn up the gain just a touch. Arguably, this made him stand out more but as his tone got more saturated, the band began to sound muddy and gross. They’re still the same virtuosic shredders but they sound terrible because their sound is ruined by over-saturation with gain.
That’s how I feel about The French Dispatch. It’s a possibly good movie ruined completely by Wes Anderson’s inability to dial down the gain on the amp of his visual aesthetic. Instead of enticing the viewer to inhabit his quirky mind and be told a collection of three potentially great stories that make interesting comments about the responsibility of the journalist while paying due homage to the swinging 60s and the spirit of the nouvelle vague, Wes Anderson manages to alienate completely by rolling all the knobs on his amp to the maximum and blowing everyone’s eardrums with a cacophonic wall of sound that overshadows anything and everything this movie could achieve. Hence, it also fails as a comedy because the viewer has absolutely no chance to engage with the characters or the stories at hand as they are being continually distracted by Anderson’s unchecked quirks and rampant disregard for good taste. And we all know comedy is a high-stakes endeavour that runs a serious risk of crashing and burning if it fails to make the viewer laugh.
Well… I didn’t laugh once. I sat there fuming at the fact that a potentially great idea for a movie was squandered so thoughtlessly because the auteur in charge was incapable of restraining his proclivities and got high on his own farts. It pains me to admit that not only is The French Dispatch an out-and-out failure and a veritable nadir in Wes Anderson’s filmmaking career, I have a sinking feeling that he might have passed the point of no return and is now unsalvageable. Anderson is FUBAR. Unless he reinvents himself somehow or at the very least reins in his idiosyncrasies so that they wouldn’t interfere with the simple idea of telling an interesting story and making it funny, I fear that – just like Jean-Luc Godard whose work he is clearly fond of – Wes Anderson might never make a great movie again.