Netflix benefited from the perception that creative types can come to the service – hungry for content as it is – and produce projects with relatively little interference. It has clearly become a selling point (with heaps of money, obviously) to attract big names, like allowing director Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” to broadcast a 3.5 hour “The Ten Commandments” .
Known for his offbeat feature films, Anderson was also allowed to star unfettered in “The French Dispatch,” a meticulously produced ode to magazines like The New Yorker which, thanks to the director’s reputation, has assembled a virtual who’s-who Hollywood stars including Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Saoirse Ronan and Bill Murray – in some cases playing blinking roles and you’ll miss them.
It’s beautiful to watch, but also an almost non-narrative film. Adapting three original “stories” from the pages of a fictional magazine, the gimmick represents a gentle tribute in theory that becomes more and more tedious as it moves fancifully but without incident from one sequence to another.
A helpful studio executive might have told Anderson this was a cute idea – worthy of a short film series, perhaps, for a starving streaming service – but not exactly a movie. At least not one that you can imagine that a lot of people pay to see.
Finally, there are Chappelle and Stewart, comedy heavyweights who have gained a lot of leeway but still feel motivated to go further.
In Stewart’s case, that meant turning his Apple series, “The Problem,” into a more mainstream news magazine that takes issues seriously and dramatically downplays humor.
It’s not bad, necessarily, and critics complaining about the lack of laughter have missed the point, since the series does not really seek to arouse them. But a note could have been that Stewart could capitalize a bit more on his comedic gifts and continue to carry the message, as he did on “The Daily Show.”
As for Chappelle, while the comic takes pride in its role as a provocateur, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for Netflix – the network paying millions for its promotions – to ask whether there is a need to revisit transgender issues so extensively after having caused a stir with his previous material on the transgender community.
“Dave, you are a genius, and we stand behind your right to express yourself,” the conversation might have vanished. “But wouldn’t it be safe to move on?
Of course, there is always the risk that Chappelle has withdrawn. As he notes in the special, it’s not like he needs the money or runs out of options.
On the other hand, it’s not like Netflix, HBO, or even the fledgling Apple is in desperate need of just one piece of content either.
Of course, executives are never the heroes of Hollywood tales. Over the years, many artists have shared stories of brilliant projects that have been rejected, having to overcome obstacles from bosses eager to implement destructive creative change.
The late comedy writer Leonard Stern (“Get Smart”, among others) commemorated this dynamic in the bone-headed book “A Martian Would Not Say That” (the title comes from the 1960s sitcom “My favorite Martian “) sent to screenwriters by television executives.
Sometimes, however, the guessing people are honestly right. And even the most talented filmmakers and performers need someone to tell them, “You know, just because a Martian might say that doesn’t automatically mean he should.”