'The French Dispatch' review: In praise of journalism, Wes Anderson-style

The filmmaker who never met a perfectly framed shot he didn't love takes on the business of storytelling with a loving eye and ear.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Wes Anderson movies are hit or miss.

The "Rushmore" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" director's meticulous sensibilities and intricate attention to visual detail — his world is an art school student's diorama, and everything inside it is framed just so, an aesthetic choice which is only growing more rigorous with each successive project he takes on — can either add to or overwhelm his stories, charming viewers with their twee perspective or driving them crazy with their crafted, artificial preciousness. 

Bill Murray in "The French Dispatch."

In "The French Dispatch," it all works. Anderson's sweet, daffy, highly specific and unabashedly high-minded valentine to journalism through the lens of a fictional French newspaper is Anderson's most Wes Anderson-y movie to date: there's not an object or a single hair on the heads of any of his actors that are out of place in any of his painstakingly perfected shots. Here, his approach complements the narrative, a tribute to esoterica which unfolds as three short stories, set in a fictional town in France (it's called Ennui, for crying out loud) in the mid-20th century. 

The story is told through the French Dispatch of the title, a foreign bureau of a Kansas newspaper whose editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Anderson regular Bill Murray), has just passed away as the film opens. In tribute to their leader, the paper's staff pulls together a final issue, repurposing three stories from its past.

The first is about Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro), an incarcerated painter and homicidal psychopath (in the most sensitive, Andersonian terms) who falls for his prison guard, Simone ("No Time to Die's" Léa Seydoux). The second is a love story about a pair of student revolutionaries, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet, a natural fit in Anderson's world) and Juliette (Lyna Khoudri), and the journalist (Frances McDormand) who comes between them (and often corrects their grammar). The third is a story of a kidnapping, told through the perspective of Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright, giving more than a nod to James Baldwin) while appearing as a guest on a talk show (Liev Schreiber plays the host).

Benicio del Toro (center) and Léa Seydoux (right) in "The French Dispatch"

The three stories are each illustrated with Anderson's signature visual panache, mostly through fixed, individual shots, although occasionally the camera moves vertically or horizontally through equally curated backgrounds. The massive cast — in addition to those named, the movie boasts appearances from Tilda Swinton, Elisabeth Moss, Christoph Waltz, Henry Winkler, Saoirse Ronan and Anderson vets Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Willem Dafoe — is at home with the material, which is often laugh out loud funny, for those who might find New Yorker cartoons to be real gut busters. 

The thread tying the stories together, besides Anderson's exacting portrait-like presentation, is a sense of absurdity, tales told with a writerly taste for the peculiar and the particular. (Anderson wrote the screenplay; he shares story credits with Schwartzman, Roman Coppola and Hugo Guinness.) Anderson's viewpoint can at times be so childlike that it seems condescending — 2012's "Moonrise Kingdom" comes to mind — but "The French Dispatch" is a wholly adult enterprise, its humor mature and refined. You step up to it, it doesn't bend down to you. 

There's a scene in the first story where Tony Revolori, the actor who plays the younger version of Del Toro's character, trades places with Del Toro to signify a passage of time. The two actors acknowledge each other as Revolori stands up and leaves the scene as Del Toro sits down and takes his place. That would never happen in another movie, but Anderson has always played by his own rules and created his own version of reality. It doesn't always click, but when it does, it creates something special. "The French Dispatch" is something special.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The French Dispatch'

GRADE: B+

Rated R: for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language 

Running time: 103 minutes

In theaters