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The French Dispatch Movie Review

The French Dispatch (2021) movie poster The French Dispatch

Theatrical Release: October 22, 2021

Running Time: 108 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Wes Anderson

Writers: Wes Anderson (story & screenplay); Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, Jason Schwartzman (story)

Cast: Benicio del Toro (Moses Rosenthaler), Adrien Brody (Julian Cadazio), Tilda Swinton (J.K.L. Berensen), Léa Seydoux (Simone), Frances McDormand (Lucinda Krementz), Timothée Chalamet (Zeffirelli), Lyna Khoudri (Juliette), Jeffrey Wright (Roebuck Wright), Mathieu Amalric (The Commissaire), Stephen Park (Nescaffier), Bill Murray (Arthur Howitzer, Jr.), Owen Wilson (Herbsaint Sazerac), Bob Balaban (Uncle Nick), Henry Winkler (Uncle Joe), Lois Smith (Upshur "Maw" Clampette), Tony Revolori (Young Moses Rosenthaler), Larry Pine (Chief Magistrate), Christoph Waltz (Paul Duval), Rupert Friend (Drill-Sergeant), Liev Schreiber (Talk Show Host), Willem Dafoe (Albert "The Abacus"), Edward Norton (The Chauffeur), Saoirse Ronan (Showgirl #1), Jason Schwartzman (Hermès Jones), Fisher Stevens (Story Editor), Griffin Dunne (Legal Advisor), Wally Wolodarsky (Cheery Writer), Anjelica Huston (Narrator)


It is with a heavy heart that I must report that one of my favorite filmmakers of the turn of the millennium is no longer with us. No, writer-director Wes Anderson is not dead. In fact, Anderson’s previous live-action film, 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, brought him the most recognition and biggest audience of his 25-year career to date.
But the Anderson who wrote and directed Budapest and his latest effort, The French Dispatch, bears virtually no resemblance to the witty auteur who gave us Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums in his late twenties and early thirties.

That Anderson, the bespectacled Texan who was a close friend and collaborator to brothers Owen and Luke Wilson, had an abundance of passion and talent and was able to channel them into funny/sad tales of flawed Americans from various walks of life. They were striking and quotable and better on every repeat viewing. They also were modest performers commercially, barely playing in other parts of the world no matter the star power assembled within, which had risen along with the Wilson brothers' profile. Those who knew Anderson’s work generally liked it and that included industry individuals with clout, like James L. Brooks (who produced Bottle Rocket), Martin Scorsese (who named Bottle Rocket one of the best films of the ‘90s in an episode of Roger Ebert’s show), and power producer Scott Rudin (who backed every Anderson film this century until his legacy of workplace abuse got him cancelled).

By the early 2000s, Anderson could have mixed things up and taken a for-hire gig. His distinctive flair could have injected welcome flavor into any number of commercial pictures. But instead the filmmaker kept doing things his own way, even after moving from Disney’s waning Touchstone Pictures arm to Fox Searchlight amidst declining returns. And without compromising or aiming for mass appeal, Anderson came upon some inexplicable success on 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, a breakout summer indie and Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee.

Production design and cinematography, two facets low on the list of concerns for Anderson’s earliest effort, have grown clearly and considerably in interest to him. Grand Budapest Hotel was nothing if not a feast visually and its assortment of candy-colored styles earned it a quartet of technical Academy Awards while it also competed for some of the highest regarded Oscars around. While Anderson has always struck one as someone who prioritized his own tastes and interests above those of the masses, he seems aware and appreciative of Budapest’s widespread popularity, which is probably why The French Dispatch doubles down on the twee aesthetic that remains the exclusive domain of its maker.

Bill Murray plays Arthur Howitzer, Jr., the founder and editor of "The French Dispatch", seen here offering feedback to writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright). Benicio del Toro has the biggest role of the film as the convict/artist Moses Rosenthaler.

Dispatch takes its name from a France-based weekly newspaper operated on behalf of a publisher in Liberty, Kansas and the film is presented like an issue, specifically the final issue to be run in 1975 upon the sudden death of the paper’s editor (Bill Murray), whose obituary bookends what is essentially an anthology film. Murray, who has been seen or heard in every Anderson film since 1998, gets a few good lines, but so vast and still expanding is the Anderson troupe that he and most others must settle for a scarcity of screentime. A second prologue of sorts follows Owen Wilson on a bike to give us an amusing tour of Ennui, the fictional city where our film takes place.

We next arrive at the longest and best of the film’s three principal segments. It involves imprisoned convict Moses Rosenthaler (played by Anderson newcomer Benicio del Toro) who emerges as a brilliant painter under the patronage of Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody) and his two wealthy uncles (Henry Winkler, a rare overlap from the Adam Sandlerverse, and Bob Balaban). Julian tries to cultivate Moses’ legend, sparking a war of wits that proceeds for years, in which Moses also pursues his nude model/muse/prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux) to no avail. It’s a narrative you can easily imagine Anderson trying to fit into Grand Budapest’s prison sequences if they weren’t already bursting with characters and twists. It also feels substantial enough to potentially have sustained an entire feature film of its own.

Unfortunately, once that first act concludes somewhere around the one-hour mark I imagine, Dispatch’s narrative charms are mostly passed and we’re left simply admiring the visual ingenuity and creative camerawork that Anderson and his longtime director of photography Robert Yeoman have cooked up for us. They play with aspect ratios and colors, even briefly employing traditional 2D animation at points.

Frances McDormand plays Lucinda Krementz, a journalist who gets involved in a youth rebellion led by Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet, right).

The mostly black and white second principal segment involves a youth rebellion at a boarding school led by chess-playing, cigarette-smoking hipster B. Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), who hands his manifesto and his virginity over to spinster journalist
Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). The uprising is almost completely devoid of narrative and entertainment value, leaving me to wonder how Chalamet’s extremely ardent and vocal online fanbase will receive both this and Dune in close proximity.

The third and final piece is a slight improvement over the second but still easily ranks among Anderson’s least rewarding work to date. It sees a loquacious wordsmith (Jeffrey Wright) being interviewed on a literary talk show (hosted by Liev Schreiber) and recounting an experience involving an abducted youth and the efforts to rescue him. There are a few more choice turns of phrase – a typographic memory, for instance – in a screenplay with no shortage of them. But once again, the primary attraction is not story or characters but in Anderson and company’s considerable whimsical showmanship.

I long for the early Anderson, who kept one foot grounded in reality, to return and come up with something great to co-write with Owen Wilson. But I can’t imagine that’s ever going to happen, as long as the director’s ambition, budgets, and industry support keep rising. On a technical level, I cannot begrudge Anderson for following his vision and continuing to make movies like no one else. I just miss the days when his films had as much substance as style.

Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Wes Anderson:
Isle of DogsThe Grand Budapest HotelFantastic Mr. FoxThe Darjeeling Limited
The Life Aquatic with Steve ZissouThe Royal TenenbaumsRushmoreBottle Rocket
Now in Theaters: Last Night in SohoAntlersThe Last DuelNo Time to Die

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Reviewed October 29, 2021.

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