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Film Review: “The French Dispatch” Is a Flavorful Dish with Very Few Calories

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 28th, 2021

Film poster: “The French Dispatch”

The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.

The joys of a Wes Anderson film can also be its misfortune. The director places so much emphasis on the design of each frame, his mise-en-scène so perfectly crafted, that the result can be as lifeless as it is beautiful. In his best work, among them the 1998 Rushmore (his second movie), the characters sparkle with a humanity enhanced by Anderson’s inventive aesthetic. In his less successful pieces, the style overwhelms the content, still fascinating to look at but not so exciting to experience. Sadly, Anderson’s latest mostly falls into the second category, though it has its moments of wild exuberance that not only entertain but tug at the mind. The sequences never dive much below the surface to affect the heart, however, making of The French Dispatch a whimsical fluffball that fades from memory as soon as it is seen. Often fun, it is also easily forgettable.

Divided into three sections, each supported by a narrative structure to which we return in between each one, the movie leads with its strongest segment. The conceit is that we are watching true-life (or a sort) stories from a New Yorker-like magazine bearing the titular name. Bill Murray (On the Rocks) plays its editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr., who moved from Liberty, Kansas, to Ennui, France, to run the publication. As much of a joke as the French town’s name may be, it is an unfortunate harbinger of some of what comes. Still, after a confusing, if pleasant enough, rigmarole of an introduction, we arrive at the first of the tales, penned by one J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton, The Dead Don’t Die), who makes an appearance in her section, as do all the authors. Delightfully strange, this first part sets up a promise never quite fulfilled thereafter.

Tilda Swinton in THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ©2021 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Benicio del Toro (No Sudden Move) stars here as Moses Rosenthaler, a homicidal painter imprisoned for a past killing spree. Now under the ever-watchful eye of prison guard Simone (Léa Seydoux, No Time to Die), who doubles as his muse, Moses would be condemned to a life of creative obscurity were it not for Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody, Bullet Head), a wannabe art dealer who sees in his fellow inmate a talent worthy of investment. Nothing comes easy, however, since Moses is immune to the profit motive, and ornery as hell. What he wants is Simone, and what she wants is to be his model. Nobody quite gets what they want, but the result is wild ride of improbable tension and resolution that is always supremely watchable.

The middle portion features, among others, Timothée Chalamet (Dune) and Frances McDormand (Nomadland), and is a snooze from start to finish, centering around a student revolution that goes nowhere, either within the film or for the viewer. It’s in the third chapter that The French Dispatch regains some of its lost footing, if not all of it. There, Jeffrey Wright (O.G.) plays Roebuck Wright, a gay expatriate writer rescued by editor Howitzer and given the culinary beat, which he steers towards crime by way of a police chef. Also starring Mathieu Amalric (Sound of Metal) and Steve Park (Phobias), with Edward Norton (Motherless Brooklyn) and Saoirse Ronan (Little Women) in smaller roles, this vignette is far more thrilling than its immediate predecessor, if not as powerful as the opener. Still, at least it allows the film to go out on a relative high note.

Jeffrey Wright in THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. ©2021 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

If individual scenes wow, the overall enterprise falls a bit flat. Still, it’s impossible to deny the giddy appeal of much of what transpires, and fans of Anderson will surely swoon. Even so, the empty cinematic calories provide far too little sustenance. We binge, we ingest, and then feel less than we thought we should, despite the vast ensemble, only a tiny fraction of which I have so far mentioned. But if it’s junk, at least it has a lot of flavor, spiced up by a charming score from composer Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water). Count on the Frenchman to add the appropriate seasoning …

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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