The Movie Waffler New to Disney+ - THE FRENCH DISPATCH | The Movie Waffler


the french dispatch review
A selection of tales from a fictional French-based journal.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bill Murray, Benicio del Toro, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalamet, Elisabeth Moss, Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Mathieu Amalric, Lyna Khoudri, Stephen Park

the french dispatch poster

The French Dispatch is unmistakably a Wes Anderson movie. It boasts sumptuous production and costume design, exquisite framing, a staggering ensemble cast and a yearning for a lost era that probably only exists in the minds of those born too late to have actually experienced it. Whether or not this is a good thing will depend on how highly you regard Anderson's work. Personally, I struggle with most of his films, though I always admire them. He's one of the few working American filmmakers who displays an obsession with visual details, and his films are always a pleasure to look at, if perhaps difficult to engage with.

That's once again the case here. For my money, Anderson's best work is The Grand Budapest Hotel, which saw him marry his distinctive visual style with a story that was consistently witty and engaging. The French Dispatch is a lot like the b-side of The Grand Budapest Hotel. It shares that film's nostalgia for central Europe in the mid 20th century, or at least a fiftysomething Texan man's idea of such, and is split into several ditties featuring more characters than a Tolstoy novel.

the french dispatch review

The movie's best portion comes right at the beginning as we're introduced to the titular journal, a Sunday supplement delivered to the readers of a fictional Kansas City newspaper. The film opens with an obituary for the magazine's editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), one of those mythical old editors who gave their writers an improbable amount of leeway. We're then introduced to Ennui - the fictional French city where the offices of the Dispatch are located - by way of a travel guide penned by Dispatch staffer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson).

All this takes place over about 15 minutes, but Anderson does a wonderful job of establishing his film's setting. It's a shame then that the three longer stories that follow do little to exploit such a wonderful backdrop.

The first story - The Concrete Masterpiece - takes place mostly within the walls of Ennui's local insane asylum, where artist Moses Rosenthaler (played as a young man by Tony Revolori and an adult by Benicio del Toro) is incarcerated for murder. Enlisting a female prison guard (Lea Seydoux) as his muse, Rosenthaler creates artworks that catch the eye of fellow inmate Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), an art dealer who purchases one of his works. When Cadazio is released he introduces the art world to the still imprisoned Rosenthaler, who becomes an instant sensation.

the french dispatch review

The Concrete Masterpiece is the most energetic and satisfying of the three stories that make up the bulk of The French Dispatch. But it relies a little too heavily on outdated mockery of the art scene. Movies like Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood and the Tony Hancock vehicle The Rebel were doing this sort of thing six decades ago. There is an amusing commentary on the idea of separating the art from the artist, with Cadazio appealing for Rosenthaler's release due to his artistic talents - "Surely there should be a double standard for this sort of thing?" he asks the prison board. Amid the somewhat stale plotline there are some inventive sight gags that nod to silent era comedy.

The second, and weakest, of the three stories is Revisions to a Menifesto. Again we get a somewhat tired pastiche, this time of college politics. Frances McDormand plays Lucinda Krementz, a veteran journalist covering Ennui's student revolution. In doing so she begins an affair with pretentious, mustachioed student leader Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet, in a role he was born to play). Zeffirelli is also dating Lyna Khoudri's Juliette (geddit? Ugh), the head of the college's feminist faction. This segment is laboured to the point of exhaustion, making the same old jokes about young people with naive politics that fuelled several seasons of the '70s British sitcom Citizen Smith. It amounts to a middle-aged liberal telling progressive youngsters to get over themselves.

Things improve somewhat with closing segment The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner. Jeffrey Wright is outstanding as Roebuck Wright, the Dispatch's James Baldwin stand-in. He narrates the tale from the stage of a Dick Cavett-esque talk show, a reminder of a time when guests were invited onto such shows not because they had something to sell but because they had something to say.

the french dispatch review

The tale itself is something of a rambling mess, revolving around the kidnapping of the young son (Winston Ait Hellal) of the town's police commissaire (Mathieu Amalric). It all leads to an elaborate chase that is rendered in 2D animation, which feels like something of a copout, like that joke in Spice World where the Spice Girls' tour bus is replaced by an obvious model as it jumps over a bridge.

It feels churlish to be so down on a movie that is so lovingly crafted, but for all its visual splendour (and I can't stress enough how visually splendid this film is), The French Dispatch rarely reels you in emotionally. For a movie that's a tribute to a lost age of intellectualism, it sure is filled with the sort of lowbrow jokes that wouldn't be out of place in an episode of 'Allo 'Allo. Much of the humour relies on the idea that artists, intellectuals and France itself are inherently amusing, which makes you wonder what sort of an audience Anderson had in mind. With The French Dispatch, Anderson appears to be mocking the sort of people who keep him in work while veering dangerously close to self-parody.

The French Dispatch is on Disney+ UK/ROI now.