Wes Anderson’s latest film, The French Dispatch, is set for a summer release and is expected to premiere at Cannes. If it does, it will bring a collection of stars to the Croisette unlike any other ensemble that could be assembled. Few directors can attract such high-wattage stars to play even the small parts, so that their films are stuffed to the gills with recognizable talent (Tarantino is one of Anderson’s few peers on this level). The French Dispatch, which was supposed to be a musical but is not, stars Anderson regulars like Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman; more recent Anderson conscripts like Saoirse Ronan, Mathieu Almaric, Lea Seydoux, and Tony Revolori; and also has brand new names like Timothee Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright, Elisabeth Moss, Christoph Waltz, Benicio Del Toro, Cecile de France—the list literally goes on and on.
I am generally a fan of Anderson, but The French Dispatch looks almost TOO TWEE. There’s a line that Anderson approaches in all of his work where his heavily mannered and stylized films become so twee it spoils the effect. The last time he crossed this line was with the double-header of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Unlimited. The Life Aquatic tread right up to the twee line without QUITE stepping over, but then The Darjeeling Unlimited plummeted right off that cliff and remains the one genuinely bad Wes Anderson film. After Darjeeling, Anderson reset, making a short film and then a stop-motion animation—The Fantastic Mr. Fox, still his best film. Once again set to “twee neutral” ground, Anderson reemerged in form with Moonrise Kingdom. But he has been creeping back up to that twee line ever since, and The French Dispatch might be another long fall off a short cliff.
It’s not that it looks bad—of course it doesn’t. Everything Anderson does is scoped and scaled to perfection. But it is a LOT of twee, like an impossible amount of twee. “The French Dispatch” refers to, I think, a magazine published by Bill Murray featuring stories from a cavalcade of global reporters. It looks like this film might be set up in vignettes centered around the different “dispatches” sent into the magazine. The trailer is not entirely clear on how the various events relate, so either it’s badly cut or the various event don’t relate. There’s no clear through-line here like “shady concierge at fancy hotel” or “kids run away”. It’s just a lot of stuff happening with every actor you’ve ever heard of.
The best Anderson films have two clear components: a scoundrel and a deception. What I can’t tell from this trailer is who is the scoundrel and what is the deception, and the last time I couldn’t get a read on those things in an Anderson film was The Darjeeling Unlimited. Which is not to say that The French Dispatch will be bad—although if you don’t already like Anderson, this probably won’t win you over—just that there are a couple red flags here. This will be a high-profile summer release, being explicit counter-programming from a distinctive filmmaker—like Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was last summer—and also being one of the first big releases under the reformed “Searchlight Pictures” banner since Disney stripped “Fox” from the name. Wes Anderson usually excels when he sneaks up on us, but there will be no sneaking with a banner release like this. We are in for a full-fledged trip to the Land of Impossible Twee, I just hope The French Dispatch doesn’t dwell too much there.