“The French Dispatch,” or more formally “The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun,” is couched as writer-director Wes Anderson’s ode to print journalism and reportage, with …
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“The French Dispatch,” or more formally “The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun,” is couched as writer-director Wes Anderson’s ode to print journalism and reportage, with its flowery, voluble script painting as vivid an element as Anderson’s distinctive style and color palette. In truth, the film is a self-salute to Anderson’s idiosyncratic filmmaking, a tightly twee milieu in which each element — cast, dialogue, set design — is carefully concocted like assembling a dollhouse.
The film’s fulcrum is Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), editor of a journal published by the eponymous foreign bureau of its Liberty, Kansas, parent paper. Reportedly inspired by Anderson’s love for “The New Yorker,” the trifurcated script contains vignettes loosely based on actual magazine stories, all set in the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé. After Howitzer’s untimely death, his coterie of writers gather to publish one last edition comprising three notable past articles.
The first, “The Concrete Masterpiece,” penned by J.K.L. Berensen (a terrific Tilda Swinton), tells the tale of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), a murderous mental health patient, who takes a shine to Simone (Léa Seydoux), his comely prison guard. This inspires Rosenthaler to start painting modernist portraits of a nude Simone, which appear as little more than indecipherable color smears to everyone except art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), a fellow inmate who becomes the reluctant Rosenthaler’s frustrated benefactor upon release.
“Revisions to a Manifesto,” by Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), is inspired by writer Mavis Gallant’s two-part article about the May 1968 student occupation protests. Krementz chronicles the inside story of the fictitious “Chessboard Revolution” and its student leader, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Krementz becomes embroiled in a love triangle with Zeffirelli and fellow student activist and Zeffirelli’s girlfriend, Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), while Krementz also helps ghostwrite Zeffirelli’s protest manifesto, calling into question Krementz’s journalistic integrity.
Finally, “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” is written and narrated by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), an amalgam of James Baldwin and A. J. Liebling, particularly Liebling’s penchant for weaving elaborate prose about food into his articles. Roebuck Wright recounts a dinner party with the Ennui police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) that evolves into an odyssey to track down the commissioner’s kidnapped son and the crime’s perpetrators, featuring police and chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park).
“The French Dispatch” occupies a space in Anderson’s oeuvre between embraceable, accessible films like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and more self-indulgent niche offerings like “The Life Aquatic” and “The Darjeeling Limited.” The overall product is the handsome, impressive spectacle of a director in full command of his craft, yet in service to a disjointed, antiseptic narrative drained of any real connection to human emotions set amid stories that desperately call for it. This is particularly true of the interplay between Krementz and Zeffrelli, which spotlights Anderson’s stilted dialogue delivery and McDormand’s trademark camera mugging but does not scratch the surface of the complex themes at play in the story. So, too, with Wright’s crime saga, which features some delightful world-building but scant story development.
This leaves too many characters — Rosenthaler, Simone, Krementz, Juliette, Newcaffier — as veritable cyphers at the heart of stories meant to venerate the descriptive power of the written word. Ironically, “The French Dispatch” ends up as a paean to exemplary style over lacking substance.
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