This review contains spoilers
Immediately from the initial casting announcements of Wes Anderson’s latest feature, “The French Dispatch,” public expectations were high. With Anderson regulars like Owen Wilson and Bill Murray poised to go toe-to-toe with newcomers like Timothée Chalamet and Benicio Del Toro, the film was bound to be a success, which it mostly was.
And while “The French Dispatch,” is, for the most part, a success, it still has its shortcomings. It’s Anderson’s most Anderson-like film to date, for better and for worse.
The film follows the newspaper the French Dispatch and the publication of its final issue following the untimely death of its Editor-in-Chief Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by an exquisitely deadpan Murray. The final publication consists of the reprinting of three articles from the newspaper’s past, as well as a brief written tour of the town of Ennui — the fictional setting — and an obituary for Howitzer.
The structure of the film essentially follows each of these articles, displaying each as isolated stories, making the film function like more of an anthology since there isn’t a clear overarching plotline outside of all of the articles being written for the same publication.
We start out with a brief tour of the fictional city of Ennui, given by the “bicycling reporter” Herbsaint Sazerac (Wilson). The sequence is charming, but ultimately doesn’t contribute much of anything to the remainder of the film.
The first article follows imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthaler (Del Toro), shady art broker Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody) and prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux); Simone serves as both Rosenthaler’s muse and love interest. The story is narrated and interjected by a lecture being given on Rosenthaler’s life from J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), who is also the reporter who wrote the article.
The story of Rosenthaler gives rise to lots of the typical Anderson-isms: deadpan humor, center-frame subjects and a heavy use of single-take tracking shots. While each performance here is certainly a delight to watch, there’s nothing much outside of Anderson’s typical style that make this part of the film stand out.
The second article follows a student uprising in Ennui, led by a charismatic but subtly absent-minded Zeffirelli (Chalamet). The reporter, Lucinda Krementz (McDormand), has a brief romance with Zeffirelli, but their romance is ultimately brought to an end and Zeffirelli meets his untimely demise at the hands of an electrified radio tower.
Once again, the cast here is fantastic, with the chemistry between Krementz and Zeffirelli being a particular highlight, but Anderson still doesn’t give the audience much to care about narratively and instead relies on his slick visuals and aesthetic charm to entice and intrigue.
This shifts, however, with the third article, which follows reporter Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) and his wild dinner with the Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric).
What starts as a seemingly innocent dinner, albeit not entirely normal, ends in a wild and invigorating hostage standoff, with Anderson creating a story that is entirely engaging from beginning to end. From Alexandre Desplat’s rhythmic score to the enticing and enchanting visuals, Anderson consistently entertains and enthralls.
It’s also worth noting Wright’s truly standout performance as Roebuck, with Wright adding an immense amount of nuance and swagger to what already is an extraordinarily complex and nuanced character. It’s a level of nuance that is so severely missing from the earlier two-thirds of the film.
The obituary sequence serves as a fitting end to the film but, like the tour sequence before it, it does almost nothing to add to the narrative of the film. However, it is quite rewarding to see at least some of the bigger names in this cast (Wright, Wilson, Swinton and McDormand) finally get a chance to share a scene, even if it ends as quickly as it came.
“The French Dispatch” is chock-full of Wes Anderson’s usual visual and stylistic elements, but its fractured, although somewhat ambitious approach to its story never truly becomes something to put in the headlines.
John Scott is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @JScott050901