Wes Anderson returns with a punch in “The French Dispatch”

Illustration by Jaida Noble | “The French Dispatch” features an immense cast of Anderson regulars and newcomers.

Wes Anderson’s latest work crowds itself to the point of bursting with personal -isms, but self-obsessed production leaves us with a film that leaves a lot to be desired.

Wes Anderson went all out with “The French Dispatch” — it is perhaps his most meticulous yet. Every inch of every frame is overpacked with details, quips, motifs and pure cinematic eye-candy such that even with the biggest screen in the world it would be impossible to entirely take in. From comic animation to a skit-style scene to fluid pivots between luscious black and white and invitingly oversaturated color photography, it’s clear that Anderson is trying to impress, perhaps in a self-indulgent way intended to promote his own status as a filmmaker more than defer to succinct and meaningful storytelling. In fact, the visuals are so spectacular, so plentiful, and draw the eye so rapidly to every point in the field of vision that it’s sometimes overwhelming, even distracting. Everything about the film is overdone, even for Anderson’s standards.

The film comprises five segments, each of which is based upon an article from the final, obituary edition of Arthur Howitzer, Jr.’s (Bill Murray) periodical, The French Dispatch of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun, and not every story is created equal. Some of the film is brilliant, but too much of it wreaks with uncharacteristic boredom. Inconsistency is a key drawback. 

The first and least consequential segment, written and narrated by Owen Wilson’s Herbsaint Sazerac, covers the basic background of the ironically-named city of publication, Ennui-sur-Blasé, France. Though unremarkable, the short introduction effectively leads us into the quirky 1960s to ’70s world of “The French Dispatch.”

The second article is the longest, and undoubtedly the best, told via a museum seminar by arts reporter J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton). They were undoubtedly great for having a relatively undynamic role, but it was Benecio del Toro and Léa Seydoux who stole the show. Their natural chemistry as world-renowned incarcerated painter Moses Rosenthaler and prison guard muse Simone, complemented by Adrien Brody as art dealer Julian Cadazio, make the section seethe with character. Combining a clever story, a great balance of highly choreographed scenes and simpler moments, admittedly (if unintentionally) compelling artwork, and an atmosphere that kept me smiling giddily throughout the duration, this has to be among the director’s most compelling work, but it doesn’t make a whole film.

In terms of quality, the third act drove off a cliff. Might it have half-heartedly swerved as it approached the brink? Perhaps, but the overall directionlessness of the plot meant that course-correction was futile. A strong sub-cast (though probably the weakest of the film) of Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, and countless other high-quality secondary actors (including surprise names from “Ted Lasso” and “The End of the F***ing World,” among others), with the subject of a youth revolution for a starting point, spelled potential — potential that was entirely wasted. The fairly infantilizing story of radical, chess-playing revolutionaries lacked a discernable arc or intent, merely floating to the whim of writer Lucinda Krementz’ (McDormand) droll and unmotivated, even slightly annoying, view of the world. 

The fourth act, though, was clearly the most boring. Jeffrey Wright as ‘Tastes & Smells’ columnist Roebuck Wright retells his article verbatim to a talk show host played by Liev Schreiber. The story covers Wright’s misadventures while researching for a piece about Steve Park’s Lt. Nescaffier (one of countless other tongue-in-cheek names speckled throughout the film), the esteemed chef to the Police Commissioner. The initial premise being the unique cuisine of Lt. Nescaffier, Wright is promptly swept up in the dramatic kidnapping of the Commissioner’s son. Once again, the concept was there, but the actual content was flat. The following near-end to the feature served more as an excuse to cram parts for Anderson regulars into the it last-minute, including confusing, unneeded, and/or dull appearances from Willem Dafoe, Ed Norton, Saoirse Ronan and Christoph Waltz. There were, as always, very well designed scenes, good production design, and smart cinematography, but it was all a façade to overcompensate for a long and uninteresting portion of the film.

Finally, a para-section concluded it all with every writer contributing to the final article of The Dispatch, the obituary of Arthur Howitzer, Jr. The idea was once again there, but with a plain script it was a weak ending for such a uniquely designed feature.

Together, the segments unfortunately came just shy of the difficult task of creating a cohesive film, given the risky but daring structure. Though abound with problems — from the overstacked cast, including parts by Henry Winkler, Larry Pine, Jason Schwartzman, and Elisabeth Moss adding very little to the story and drawing the viewer out of the film, or the blindingly flashy visuals — I don’t mean to make “The French Dispatch” out to be a horrible film; it is extremely unique, funny at times, clever at others, with great music and an occasionally very well written screenplay, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it more than a little disappointing. I would even place the work at a respectable seventh among Anderson’s now thirteen combined features and shorts. “The French Dispatch” is admirable for its attempt to pull off something both mainstream and highly avant-garde at once, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Title: “The French Dispatch”

Star Rating: 4/5

[Available at time of writing to see in theatres.]

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