‘The French Dispatch’ review: a thrilling game of Wes Anderson bingo

Deadpan delivery? Symmetrical composition? Old-timey aesthetic? Tick, tick, tick!

If you’re one of those people who finds Wes Anderson films twee and irritating then read no further. This one’s not for you. Set in the office of a fictional, 19th century French newspaper, The French Dispatch is so stuffed with tropes from its director’s movies that it feels like he’s cycling through a checklist. Hate title cards, deadpan delivery and painstakingly symmetrical framing? Then prime yourself for mental self-destruct – because Wes has his finger on the big red button.

And yet, apart from the usual stylistic clichés, this isn’t your typical Anderson movie. Structurally, it’s unconventional. Though The French Dispatch opens on a staff meeting of the titular publication, chaired by eccentric editor Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), it soon breaks out into that issue’s ‘features’ – which are essentially several extended short films. We have investigative journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), whose long read about student activist Zeffirelli (a near parodic Timothée Chalamet) includes an unexpected romance – and Jarvis Cocker as a kind of Serge Gainsbourg-like lounge singer called Tip-Top. Then there’s Tilda Swinton delivering a lecture on Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), the ultra-violent artist being courted by high society while locked up in a maximum security prison. Perhaps most arresting is Jeffrey Wright’s chapter, in which a Fantastic Mr Fox-esque kidnapping leads to Guys and Dolls-style, tommy gun-toting armageddon.

The French Dispatch
Benicio Del Toro and Léa Seydoux in ‘The French Dispatch’. CREDIT: Alamy

These three main chunks of storytelling are interspersed with shorter, star-studded tangents. In one scene, Owen Wilson rides an old-timey bike before crashing down some subway stairs by accident – complete with mock-surprise yelp. Peter Sellers couldn’t have done it better. Occasionally, we break out into edit-note asides, where Murray’s bespectacled newspaperman workshops copy with his writers. They often disagree – and trade witty one-liners for a few moments. These extra scenes help to ground the longer bits in a central narrative, but it sometimes feels like Anderson is conning the audience. He’s released a number of shorts over the years, so why do these deserve a feature’s wrapping? Perhaps on their own, each mini-movie wouldn’t put enough bums on seats, though cobbled together into a quirky, meandering whole and they wield considerable box office clout.

Still, we’re not complaining. It’s been seven years since Anderson’s last live action movie, and The French Dispatch is probably his funniest work since 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. It’s certainly the starriest. Regulars Murray, Brody and McDormand do the heavy lifting, while newbies like Chalamet and Léa Seydoux bring a freshness (and French-ness) that counteracts any potential fustiness from the antiquated aesthetic. The haters will hate, but this is top tier Wes Anderson.

Details

  • Director: Wes Anderson
  • Starring: Léa Seydoux, Benicio Del Toro, Adrien Brody
  • Release date: December 9 (AU cinemas)
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