With his newest film ‘Wasp Network,’ Olivier Assayas makes a film that defies comprehension and wastes a promising cast on a shoddy script.
Cuba has been a country in a state of crisis for a number of years now, with the communist nation the setpiece for a number of different films. From the Cuban Missle Crisis to the rise of Che Guevara and the residencies of people like Ernest Hemmingway, Cuba provides the landscape for beautiful tales of political turmoil. Wasp Network should have joined these ranks. Wasp Network tells the thrilling true story of a spy syndicate in Cuba and Miami. With director Olivier Assayas, should be thrilling and fascinating. With a cast including Penélope Cruz, Édgar Ramírez, Wagner Moura, Ana de Armas, and Gael Garcia Bernal, it should also be well-acted.
Instead, it is none of these things. Wasp Network is a muddled mess of nonsense, somehow both confusing and boring. The cast is wasted, the script is terrible, and even Assayas’s direction is trashier than usual. Frankly, the film is a disaster. Assayas has proven himself at turning something from nothing, and the cast of the movie have often made gold from silk. In particular, the political leanings of the film are also meaningless. Assayas goes for a kind of filmmaking known as “hyperlink cinema.” This means Wasp Network tells a multitude of stories that don’t immediately seem connected. Yet this movie’s attempt at hyperlinking the plots is confounding.
The first and largest is the Ramírez/Cruz plotline, the story of a married man who abandons his family in Cuba to defect to the US. Ramírez plays René Gonzalez, a pilot who leaves his family behind and ends up working as a pilot in an anti-Cuban group in Miami. The same group also involves Moura as former-actor-turned-spy Juan Pablo Roque, who insinuates himself in the Miami elite and marries Cuban-American de Armas. For a long while of the film, Gonzalez and Roque undermine Cuban communism from America. Gonzalez attempts to bring his factor-working wife Olga and their daughter over from Cuba, while Roque tries to have a happy life with his wife Ana Margarita. But then a flashback happens, and Garcia Bernal emerges as another major player in the film. From there the plot twists completely, losing the entire audience and removing an hour’s worth of plot.
Cruz and Ramírez at least get an emotional arc between the two of them, one that provides for the only good moments in the film. Cruz is a great actress and in this (her second New York Film Festival film after Pain and Glory) she plays a very complex character. But she predominantly plays the “Sad Wife” to an “Important Man” (reminiscent of an Amy Schumer sketch) and she is mostly just second fiddle to Ramírez. Done dirtier are Moura and de Armas. Ana de Armas (the only actual Cuban in the cast) does nothing for her brief time in the film, a talent wasted on a character that she clearly is better than. Moura at least has a plotline (and delivers a performance completely different from his Narcos character), but the film sidelines him after about the 2/3rds mark of the over-long runtime. Between the two of them, they have characters that aren’t even worth mentioning by the film’s end, despite taking up almost an hour of the screentime. And when Garcia Bernal eventually shows up for his minor role, you are almost wishing he never appeared in the first place.
It upends the film and invalidates almost an hour of character building. It also complicates an already confusing political message about Cuban-American relationships. When a film is set in Cuba and made in 2019 you expect some better takes on immigration or communism. Instead, Assayas seems to focus on… nationalism? Or maybe on family values? Possibly Assayas only cares about the story and ignores any commentary he is making. Somehow Wasp Network isn’t even the best French-directed film at NYFF about how international influence has caused havoc in a Caribbean nation. In many ways, it appears as though Assayas wrote and directed a film without considering that people might actually try and understand it. This “World Premiere Cut,” as the critics screening was told, Assayas attempted to remove some of the smaller details like timing and locations. A real pity for a film this senseless. Perhaps Assayas should put those “unnecessary details” back so that someone can make sense of the chaos.
Wasp Network premiered at New York Film Festival. It will be released in 2020.