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Review: 'The French Dispatch'

Some words to describe Wes Anderson’s latest movie The French Dispatch:

Stylish. Sophisticated. Bouncy. Brilliant. Whimsical. Wonderful. Highbrow. And humorous.

Just what you’d expect from the writer/director whose movies include: Bottle Rocket (12996), The Royal Tanenbaums (2001), Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

His style is immediately recognizable. You know you’re watching a Wes Anderson movie. Like Hitchcock, he is a director whom French movie critics would have referred to as an auteur a half century ago.

Like the Coen Brothers, Anderson’s work is anything but mainstream. His stories and characters are quirky and unusual. But that is exactly what his fans have come to love and expect.

Some of the top performers in the business line up to work with him in the creation of the various alternate realities reflected in his movies. Bill Murray is a familiar face, along with Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton.

In The French Dispatch, they are joined by Lea Seydoux, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz and Mathieu Amalric who are all veterans of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies. The four of them show what they can do with well-written characters in the hands of an exceptionally talented director.

Like his previous work, The French Dispatch is heavy on style—the writing, dialogue, art direction, cinematography and editing. The sum total is the creation of a storybook world for adults. His colorful, detailed sets often look like scaled up doll houses that are unusual and amusing at a glance.

Within a few minutes of the opening reel, it’s apparent that you’re not in Kansas anymore, to quote The Wizard of Oz.

The stories always border on the outrageous. Here, Anderson has created a loving homage to The New Yorker magazine, basing his characters on the New Yorker’s founder as well as his legendary group of contributing writers.

While this synopsis may sound like a description of the driest, most boring movie ever made, Anderson works his unique magic, bringing the story to vibrant life. The approach is literary, relying on voice-over narrative and breaking the film into four sections much like the short stories featured in a magazine like The New Yorker.

Like Citizen Kane (1941) it begins with an obituary of the magazine’s founder, Arthur Howitzer played by Bill Murray. Once again, the collaboration between Murray and Anderson works to perfection.

Certain actors and directors seem destined to work with each other. Ask Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Once introduced to the characters and plot elements, The French Dispatch explores three short stories.

The first (titled “The Concrete Masterpiece”) is about the world of art involving an imprisoned painter (played by Benicio Del Toro) and his free-spirited female guard/muse (played by Lea Seydoux). It is a biting satire about the world of art and art itself that humorously explores the creation of art and the business of art. Del Toro and Seydoux turn in career-topping performances.

Next, Timothee Chalamet and Frances McDomand star in a story about politics, youth and revolution (“Revisions to a Manifesto”), reminiscent of the events in Paris, circa 1968. He’s a passionate young college student. She’s an American journalist, whose involvement with her subject crosses the line.

Lastly, Anderson serves up “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” a nod to the classic gangster films of the 1930s complete with wild car chases and tommy gun turmoil.

Anderson effortlessly drifts from black and white images to a hysterical animated chase sequence for maximum effect.

The French Dispatch is a movie made for movie lovers, by a filmmaker who passionately loves movies. To some extent, it is a tribute to classic movies and directors. But it is the vision and approach that probably constituted a genre in and of itself—the Wes Anderson genre.

His tightly-constructed films display an attention to detail that is rare. His mastery of moviemaking makes his work seem effortless.

In one scene, a young assistant bursts into the publishers office only to be promptly fired, on the spot. There is a moment of shock and disbelief broken by the publisher’s warning that there is to be no crying. At that moment, the camera tilts up just a fraction to reveal the sign just above the door that says, “No Crying.” Trademark Wes Anderson humor.

The only problem with The French Dispatch is that it might appear to be a bit too highbrow for mainstream movie audiences. Admittedly, it may aim a little above the heads of the typical multiplex attendee.

But, in its defense, it’s a bold, crazy, unpredictable movie that isn’t afraid to toss in sex, violence and even some unexpected nudity for the sake of entertainment and shock value.

Wes Anderson knows how to strike the perfect balance of sophisticated content and signature style to create the insanely charming, amusing cinematic experience that has come to define a Wes Anderson film.


The French Dispatch is in theaters across the country, and opens in Pittsburgh area theaters October 29.

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