Movie Review: ‘The French Dispatch’

Movie Review: ‘The French Dispatch’

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Pablo Pauly and Bill Murray in a scene from the film. Photo from Searchlight Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Auteur Wes Anderson’s works are an eclectic mix. From Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums to The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom, his voice and vision are unique among filmmakers. Quirky characters in fast-paced comedies carry an underlying melancholy and introspection. His films have received a total of fifteen Academy Award nominations. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) received nine nominations and won four.

Now Anderson has written and directed a star-studded omnibus, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Newspaper editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) dies of a heart attack, leaving instructions to close the paper following a farewell issue. The final publication is to feature three articles from past editions, along with Howitzer’s obituary.

This thin framework is the basis for an anthology of three peculiar tales from the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun’s French foreign bureau, located in Ennui. Each vignette focuses on one of the staff writers. Perhaps the stories are meant to be a send-up of a particular genre; the overall tone is firmly tongue-in-cheek, more spoof than satire.

In the first (“The Concrete Masterpiece”), J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) tells of an artist, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), serving a prison term for double murder. While incarcerated, he paints a series of prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux), that comes to the attention of another prisoner, Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody). Cadazio (based on controversial British art dealer Lord Duveen) feels he has found the ideal modern artist. When released, he approaches his uncles (Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban) to embark on an exhibition of Rosenthaler’s work. The fly in the ointment is that Rosenthaler has painted the works on the prison walls.

In “Revisions of a Manifesto,” Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) is a correspondent reporting on the “Chessboard Revolution.” While becoming involved with a much younger Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), the bumbling leader of the revolt, she claims that she can maintain journalistic distance and integrity. In addition to their romantic liaison, Krementz rewrites Zeffirelli’s manifesto, including an appendix. 

The final chapter is “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” Reporter Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a nod to James Baldwin and A.J. Liebling, recounts the kidnapping of Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal), the son of the Ennui police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric), by a criminal syndicate. Police officer/noted chef Lt. Nescaffier (Stephen Park) becomes the hero through an elaborate poisoning. 

The plots are simple: a send-up of modern art (with a prison movie slant); a parody of young rebels and pointless causes; and a cops-and-robbers noir. But the telling is either brilliantly twisted or frustratingly convoluted, depending on the point-of-view. While ostensibly an homage to the day of the printed magazine (i.e., The New Yorker), the visual gymnastics are the driving force. Both cinematically steroidal (including rich black-and-white and vivid pop-art color, an awareness of the artifice of the sets, and even an animated car chase) and meta-theatrical (tableaux vivant), The French Dispatch is an often absorbing, wholly strange, and indefinable two hours.

The first-rate cast is clearly game for Anderson’s world. They play in a style that could be described as hyper-low key—sly, wry, and somehow conscious of the audience. In addition to the previously mentioned, appearances include an extraordinary ensemble in roles both large and small: Owen Wilson, Elizabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Fisher Stevens, Lois Smith, Larry Pine, Christoph Waltz, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, and Saoirse Ronan. Anjelica Huston is the omniscient narrator.

Some will find The French Dispatch a delightful and engaging absurdist meringue, visually striking, playing on multiple levels. Others might see it as a pretentious shaggy dog story, an in-joke of epic and head-scratching proportions. In any case, it would be impossible to experience this movie and not have an opinion.

Rated R, The French Dispatch is now playing in local theaters.