You only have to watch a few seconds of Wes Anderson‘s The French Dispatch to know who’s pulling the strings. Reminiscent of J.D. Salinger or Anthony Trollope—two writers whose books possess distinct airs, whimsical personalities and cursory speech patterns—Anderson’s cinematic realm is populated with naturally gifted, overly-poised but deeply neurotic characters who scurry and flit through their lives without ever stopping to reflect on them. They’re not necessarily multifaceted, but they do speak to the obsessive nature of human frailty.
And if ever there was a filmmaker whose greatest attribute was world-building, Anderson would be it. Well, him and George Lucas. It’s undeniable that his true passion lies in the storybook look and tone of his films. From the muted color palettes and dollhouse-styled production designs to his soundtracks filled with British Invasion bands, an Anderson movie is like a collective homage to French New Wave cinema, ’30s screwball comedies and ’60s pop culture. Sometimes this alchemy weaves seamlessly into his stories as in the engrossing tragicomedy of The Royal Tenenbaums or the madcap fantasy of The Grand Budapest Hotel. At other times, the style overwhelms any substance the script might have to offer (Isle of Dogs).
The master of quirk’s return is both a tribute to his adopted country of France and a nod to American magazines that nurtured his talents like The New Yorker. It’s a dazzling celebration of cinematic aesthetics and a feast for the eyes. Every frame is tactfully conceived down to the last speck of dust. However, Anderson’s characters, which are usually drawn with a sliver of empathy and individuality, are mere mannequins in this grand fantasy. This isn’t necessarily a shortcoming, considering Anderson’s visionary originality, but it’s hard to ignore the movie’s soulless bearing and detached feel.
Set in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, where the local zine, The French Dispatch, is closing its doors due to the death of its editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray, in pure narcoleptic mode). The town is introduced by bike-pedaling travel writer, Owen Wilson, in a sequence that’s so grand in tableau but flat in temperament and humor, you hope the rest of the movie doesn’t follow suit. But it does.
Structurally, this is a triptych of stories that constitute the magazine’s final edition with each one narrated by its most eccentric writers. First, there’s art critic J.K.L. Berensen’s (Tilda Swinton) tale of homicidal painter Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his prison guard lover Simone (Lea Sydoux), which is easily the best of the bunch. Then there’s the dreary saga of a 1968 student occupation, featuring chain-smoking Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) and her curious affair with protest organizer, Zefferelli B. (Timothee Chalamet). Finally, Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a James Baldwin-inspired scribe, delves into the kidnapping of the police commissioner’s precocious son and the antics which ensue. These tales are intercut with scenes where Murray drifts into the writers’ offices to confer on the pieces, which could’ve burst with personality and shown writers at their most precious and juvenile, but are instead as dry and lifeless as the Sahara.
An ensemble of venerated actors such as Willem Dafoe, Bob Balaban, Christoph Waltz, Henry Winkler, Elisabeth Moss, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, and Mathieu Amalric pop up for a couple minutes before disappearing into the ether. None of their performances stand out since they all talk in the same impassive cadence (only Wright really impresses). This isn’t completely unusual in Anderson’s universe, but Dispatch takes it to a new level of uniformity and tedium.
As for the stories themselves, they are told with such a frenetic, lightning-speed momentum it’s difficult to keep track of events, or even care. Anderson is basically displaying what it’s like to flip through a magazine and ingest its essence before returning to normal life. Still, it’s strange that a movie that pays homage to writers and literary ingenuity is desperately lacking in human emotion or connectivity. The narrative never feels like a tribute to journalism of yore as much as an opportunity to construct interesting set pieces for its filmmaker.
Even with its inherent flaws, there are some twisted and endearing moments in The French Dispatch. If you’re a Wes Anderson fan, you’ll find plenty to enjoy. Aesthetically, it’s one of his most densely layered undertakings. With his longtime production designer, Adam Stockhausen, and a captivating score by Alexandre Desplat, the director implements every cinematic device known to man. He switches from black and white to color photography with the snap of his fingers; he implements split screens; he even injects an animated action sequence. From the first frame on, Anderson lets it rip, Stallone style, presenting his signature stylistics on steroids. Too bad the same filmmaker who went to dreadful pains to design the house and hang the drapes, forgot to inhabit it with actual human beings.