I remain as firm a Wes Anderson stan as the next person, but even I’m inclined to admit his definition of a perfect film can be best described as inconsistent. His newest fuse of creativity thrives on its inconsistencies. Suppose that comes with the framing device it uses. Wrapping several unrelated stories around a fictitious magazine like The French Dispatch will naturally lead to mixed results by virtue of its execution. If you know Wes’s work, this won’t be any different; the attention to detail is ever present, as is the rapid-fire, alliterative dialogue and high-end set design. But it’s his first attempt at an anthology film, essentially his Fantasia, but the pieces combined do not tell a definite story. It’s not necessarily a problem, but knowing Anderson and writing partner Roman Coppola, they’d be the ones capable to keep everything better linked.
The magazine itself is a stable launching pad for quirkiness to bubble up to the surface; it’s Wes’s chance to pay homage to the unconventional nature of The New Yorker, down to its often folksier spins on world events. We establish the publication as a weekly hub for expatriate Americans in a sleepy French town, added to the Sunday edition of an equally fictional newspaper based out of Liberty, Kansas. And it has a few successes under its belt. But then, just as suddenly, its editor (Bill Murray) suddenly passes away, with his will prompting the immediate shutdown of the magazine. Before that, however, one last issue is published, showcasing the idiosyncrasies in their community of Ennui-sur-Blasé, and their talented writers in personal situations.
Anderson and Coppola split up this Dispatch into six segments, three of them the key feature articles, experimenting with separate variants on style, character traits and aspect ratio. Many of the director’s favorite people waste no time in owning their segments in front of the camera, with Murray the curmudgeonly voice of reason approving all pieces. Pass through the interlude, and a very brief, random forward involving Owen Wilson on a bicycle to explain the beauty of their occupied community, then we are introduced to our initial anti-hero. Benicio Del Toro is at his best with those sorts of roles, and convicted felon turned painter Moses Rosenthaler is a grand example, looking to escape the criminal trap, and make a killing in the art game through the aid of petty dealer Julien (Adrien Brody) and jail guard turned lover Simone (Lea Seydoux). She and Moses let some sparks crackle in their chemistry, although Del Toro better embraces the fury of a tortured genius a bit more for the good of the artist’s crowd, dirtying his own black-and-white lens with little wasted energy. Tilda Swinton narrates as a stuffy art critic and scholar giving appropriate counterpoints to further humanize Moses; a welcome challenge which Anderson tackles from different angles.
The second vignette is perhaps a fiery hybrid between Godard, Sartre and Hugo, channeling a light satire in the pitfalls of existential revolution. Francis McDormand pulls herself out of her own woodwork as staff writer Lucinda Krementz, on assignment to cover a group of student anarchists, namely their senior members Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). Despite the flagrant neo-noir homage Anderson builds for himself, and McDormand’s excellent display of integrity, it’s a mild throwaway, a staggered hurdle to pass through at the midway marker.
The third vignette makes up for those slight lapses, as food journalist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) recounts his run-in with a police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) while retrieving his son from kidnappers. The plight appears somewhat low-key and innocuous, even down to quiet though still palpable dinner scenes, featuring a very crafty house chef (Stephen Park). Edward Norton poses a menacing enough threat as the lead kidnapper, making up for a little lost time post-Motherless Brooklyn.
Between these three lead subplots, all somewhat flow at the same intensity while covering different themes and separately flexible color palettes. Regular Wes collaborators like DoP Robert Yeoman, composer Alexandre Desplat, and editor Andrew Weisblum are tasked with gluing each piece together, without any overactive keynotes distracting the movements at hand. And they do a fair enough job with cohesively turning the pages, regardless of any slap-dash hesitancy in moving between articles. And in the case of the third major piece, shifting from one medium to another, as Anderson opts for, exchanging live action for animation in the guise of a classic Tintin-like comic homage. It’s no less effective than any trope best served in his films, whether it be wide camera pans from one room to another, the deadpan rapid-fire delivery, or obscure needle drops.
There’s a sense of awkwardness to be found, revisiting these old road bumps, and creating new ones to add to the director’s toolkit. It is his first full throated live action effort in over seven years; 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel is still more than a distant memory. Shake off the cobwebs, and then I was more willing to re-accept his familiar story touches, like the mystique of an old friend we haven’t seen in ages. That to me was what I’d been looking forward to most on this endeavor, returning to that purely escapist cinema Wes has been known for. Again, stumbles aside, it’s fully golden. Del Toro and Chalamet in their respective leading roles deserved a wider playground to roam in, and it is possible Brody (mirroring the shrewdness of ruthless English art dealer Joseph Duveen) was underused as that fellow convict looking to contribute to society, one of many ways Wes is saluting the Yorker and the weirdest stories that had come out.
It could be Wright’s and Del Toro’s respective sly coolness that will keep viewers in their seats. They’ll come for that Anderson charm, but their swagger made me stay. All told, quite a wide swath of talents placed their intuition into The French Dispatch. Nearly makes us wish the magazine were an existent property, longing for the same level of yarn-spinning expertise that’s become the regular cadence of these Anderson films. Here, amid its collective disjointedness, it’s fostered a stronger emotional connection, merging both pensiveness and respite in this folksy tourist trap of an anthology. Far from his most exemplary piece, but a delightful oddity to witness all the same. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
The French Dispatch arrives in select theaters October 22, wide release October 29; rated R for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language; 107 minutes.