I'm worried Wes Anderson is turning into Woody Allen — not personally, but professionally.
Like Allen, Anderson does something specific that gets more specific with each film. You can identify his movies by glancing at their suitable-for framing images — deadpan actors are artificially posed within the symmetrical composition and someone is bound to be wearing orange with turquoise — but I worry that's dooming him to gradually smaller audiences of devotees.
Anderson's latest contraption begins with a rarefied subject — "The French Dispatch" is about a high-toned magazine so similar to the New Yorker that the movie is dedicated to the weekly publication's staffers — and gets more idiosyncratic from there. It's in three ornate parts, posing as three stories from the magazine, joined by scenes of the editor (Bill Murray, avuncular and calm) haggling over budgets and space.
If you like Anderson movies such as "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel," you'll like "French Dispatch," which he wrote and directed. I did. But the jokes are so Anderson-ish that you may have to already love his work to appreciate them.
There's a scene, for instance, in which three people sit at a table for four and, as the camera angle shifts, so does the way they're arranged. What we're being shown, the joke says, is impossible.
Many of the jokes are similarly movie-aware. "French" parodies a kind of ennui-laden foreign film that was popular in the middle of the last century, when it seems to be set. (Timothée Chalamet, as a revolutionary, is particularly adept at turning big passion into big laughs.)
Many of the sets depicting the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé are styled to look fake, like dioramas. And one bit makes fun of the cinematic convention in which an older actor replaces the younger version of a character we've been following. When an artist played by Tony Revolori (from "Grand Budapest") gives way to the older version, now played by Benicio Del Toro, he places his necklace around Del Toro's neck, so we know they're supposed to be the same guy.
The story is labyrinthine and beside the point. The central joke is that, whatever they're supposed to be reporting on, the writers — Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton and Jeffrey Wright — make their stories about themselves, and the actors dig into their larger-than-life characters with gusto.
McDormand's snarly seriousness is so specific that even an unfunny-on-paper line such as "Exactly!" is hilarious in her hands. Swinton's garish (orange, of course) gown and enthusiastic telling of Del Toro's story also are amusing, especially if you've read the kind of going-on-long-about-a-little story she tells.
Most of the humor is of the sort that makes you think, "Yes, that's clever," rather than laughing out loud. That's where the danger of insularity comes in. When he's willing to go there, Anderson can create emotionally engaging characters — del Toro's gruff brand of sweetness is quite poignant, for instance — and his comedy taste extends to a couple of visual gags that would be at home in a Buster Keaton movie. But he seems more comfortable with parody than sincerity.
Anderson's love of the elaborately fake worlds created by movies is clear in every frame of every film he's made. It makes sense that "French Dispatch" affectionately salutes writers who insist on doing their own thing, since that's what he does, too. As a fan, I hope audiences keep paying attention.
'The French Dispatch'
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: R for graphic nudity and brief, strong language
Where: Wide release.