The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson’s worst movie, but that’s no reason to skip it

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Wes Anderson’s meticulously crafted omnibus narrative The French dispatch takes his quest for beauty to new levels, but he struggles to make it more than a visual exercise. Its rotation through a multitude of distant correspondents opens with a eulogy: Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), based on The New Yorker founder Harold Ross, has passed away. A Midwesterner inspired by his youthful travels to France, Howitzer wanted to send the events of Boredom-on-Blasé back to the cornfields of Kansas. So he founded a flexible magazine, The French dispatch, to add to The evening sun.

The film is not about Howitzer’s death. Anderson only notes that he died at his desk and that his last wish was that Mail to cease publication on his death, the last issue being devoted to his obituary. The rest of the film takes place before his death, describing how his low-key, spirited defense of his neurotic reporters and jaded demeanor helped determine the stories that made each issue. Her favorite tip for her writers: “Try to make it look like you wrote it that way on purpose.”

The film is divided into five separate vignettes, each of which is a reported column belonging to a specific newspaper section, written by one of the reporters. As is often the case with anthology style movies, some sections work better than others. Anderson’s penchant for dry comedy used to explain grief, the inner workings of dysfunctional people, and children who experience the loss of innocence returns to the fore. Yet it is the director’s least digestible work. This is supposedly a love letter to New Yorker of yesteryear, but while The French dispatch showcases Anderson’s familiar aesthetic style, it is often a distant omnibus that can only appeal to its most ardent fans.

Tilda Swinton, Lois Smith, Adrien Brody, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban and a host of others pile into a wagon and stare at the camera in Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch.

Photo: Projector images

From the start of the film, it is difficult to frame the emotional common thread. The first story is written by travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), a slapstick briefing informed by his bike through the most seedy areas of Boredom. The second tale, “The Concrete Masterpiece”, sees an imprisoned sociopathic painter (Benicio del Toro) attract the attention of an art dealer and an imprisoned art dealer (Adrien Brody). Léa Seydoux, in the role of a prison guard, is the face of Del Toro. And Tilda Swinton’s JKL Berensen is the reporter. None of these stories are narratively striking. The fun stems from the actors’ commitment to the track – especially Del Toro and Swinton, as two idiosyncratic characters with little regard for how people perceive them.

Other stories also fail: “Revisions To A Manifesto” sees journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) profiling rebellious students forcing a revolution in May 1968. Dune star Timothée Chalamet, describing a Dylan-style retaliation for his Lady Bird character, is the student leader, while Lyna Khoudri plays the role of her antagonistic teenage opposition. Chalamet approaches the role head-on, rendering his character with a forced confidence, a sort of projected maturity that only serves to mask his insecurities. Likewise, McDormand is playing a role she has taken on before, with more success: Her “stern adult trying to relate to youth” character here does not live up to her role in Almost known.

When these stories come to life, it’s thanks to Anderson’s familiar visual language. It relies on crisp, textured black and white, a cool-toned color palette (it seems to switch to color for no reason), and animation. His compositions are always well thought out, but his depth of field is richer and denser than ever. He clearly composes odes to the stars of the French New Wave Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Renoir. The only part of the frame that is not fully realized is Elisabeth Moss, taking on a minor and thankless role of Mail copy editor. But on the subjects of travel, food, art, and politics, Anderson has little to say other than emulating other styles of literature.

These vignettes are beautiful facsimiles of intriguing New Yorker columns, but they are not in themselves interesting. These are long, talkative and erased readings, which can be interpreted as an ode to journalism, a sort of voice-specific reporting that seems to be lost today. But Anderson isn’t entirely concerned with reporters’ stark and shifting outlook. It should be considered how The French dispatch opens. The film’s narrator, voiced by Anjelica Huston, explains how the diary’s sensibility reflects the personal tastes of its founder.

Tilda Swinton, in a puffed orange dress and bright orange layered, on a podium highlighted in The French Dispatch by Wes Anderson

Photo: Projector images

from Anderson The French dispatch is not just a love letter to journalism, it is a novelization of an ideal publisher. A Myriad of Scenes finds Howitzer analyzing the copy for redundancy, sifting through prose lines to unravel the core of a play. Although he protests the exorbitant expenses his writers rack up, their word count overruns, and the way they tell stories he didn’t initially attribute, he never cuts a column. He finds a way to make the voices of his writers work in concert with his vision. With that logic in mind, each artwork we see has been chosen to match his tastes, creating a dual curation by the character and Anderson. In a sense, he’s his film’s own editor-in-chief, battling over these disparate actors whom he has grown to trust.

Maybe that’s why The French dispatchThe final segment carries the kindest heart in the movie. “The Police Commissioner’s Private Dining Room” follows Jeffrey Wright describing a food critic with a photographic memory of every word he ever wrote. The character appears on a talk show hosted by Liev Schreiber, presumably long after Howitzer’s death. The writer recounts how he met famous Chief Nescaffier (Stephen Park) during a visit to a Police Commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) the night a driver (Edward Norton) kidnapped the Commissioner’s son Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal). It’s a great story because Wright’s character is the only journalist to express his gratitude to Howitzer. His memorial is real, touching, and without the excessive aesthetic frills, made possible by Wright’s detailed yet vulnerable performance.

The tenor that Wright hits leads perfectly to the film’s glowing ending. Howitzer’s writers come together to write his obituary, in tribute to their fallen leader. But there is a lot of bifurcation in this film (the double vision of the artist, the two lovers of Chalamet, etc.), and this is reflected in the duplication of this scene. Anderson’s trusted performers also write a tribute to him, praising his vision and approach. It doesn’t seem like a deliberate choice Anderson made – if it was, he might have personalized this movie sooner.

But given the overflow of styles, themes and tales, The French dispatch might reveal more of its authentic charms with successive respawns. On one vision, however, the film bears little fruit, at least not until the last 20 minutes, beyond seeing the director work his visual magic. For a work that moves to a deliberate beat, that may not be enough for non-Anderson sidekicks. The French dispatch is arguably the worst film of the director’s career. But even his worst effort is worth the bullet.

The French dispatch premieres in theaters on October 22, with a wider rollout on October 29.

Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri lean on opposite sides of an exterior jukebox (is that a trick?), Face to face in Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch.

Photo: Projector images

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