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"THE FRENCH DISPATCH"
(2021) (Frances McDormand, Benicio Del Toro) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: Several human-interest stories make up the latest French dispatch of an American newspaper.
PLOT:

It's the 1970s and the American ex-pat staff of The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun is preparing the obituary for the founding editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (BILL MURRAY). The edition will include a travel section -- reported by bicycling journalist Herbsaint Sazerac (OWEN WILSON) -- about the various notable parts of the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé.

That's followed by three stories. The first is narrated by Dispatch reporter J.K.L. Berensen (TILDA SWINTON) who tells the tale of imprisoned murderer Moses Rosenthaler (BENICIO DEL TORO) who uses one of the prison's guards, Simone (LEA SEYDOUX), as both his nude model and his muse. His work has drawn the interest of fellow inmate Julian Cadazio (ADRIEN BRODY) who'd like to pay for his work, much like art collector Upshur 'Maw' Clampette (LOIS SMITH).

The second story revolves around Lucinda Krementz (FRANCES McDORMAND) who's reporting on student protests, notably involving Zeffirelli (TIMOTHÉE CHALAMET) and his girlfriend, Juliette (LYNA KHOUDRI). And the third is told by journalist Roebuck Wright (JEFFREY WRIGHT) about Gigi (WINSTON AIT HELLAL), the 6-year-old son of the police Commissaire (MATHIEU AMALRIC) who's been kidnapped by a band of criminals and the efforts of the authorities -- including police chef Nescaffier (STEPHEN PARK) -- to get the boy back.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10

Quirky people are often fun to be around, but I can imagine spending twenty-four hours a day with them year-in and year-out might get old after a (short) while. After all, sometimes you just want someone to behave "normally" and simply be quiet and still, rather than always being "on." Having not lived with anyone like that, maybe such quirkiness is just for show, but I imagine for some it's a chronic condition.

I have no idea what Wes Anderson is like in his private life (or his public for that matter), but he's certainly made a name for himself -- not to mention an enviable living -- making quirky movies. Starting with 1996's "Bottle Rocket" through his Oscar-nominated "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and two terrific stop-motion animated films, he's been nothing short of prolific in delivering, well, the quirk.

That continues in his latest offering, "The French Dispatch," which can best be described as "the most Wes Andersony film of Wes Anderson" as well as "Wes Anderson on steroids." His signature style of both storytelling and filmmaking is definitely his own (it's been parodied multiple times) and it's easy to spot one of his films from just a few moments of watching.

That said, I've mostly liked his offerings over the years, ranging from sheer exuberance (such as for "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Isle of Dogs") to good ("The Royal Tenenbaums"), with the occasional "boy, he really missed the mark" ("The Darjeeling Limited"). Alas, I wasn't crazy about his latest work, mainly because it's simply not a movie. Okay, it has all of the necessary elements and is being shown in theaters, so I should probably provide a little clarification.

While having a central throughput -- the film centers around a newspaper insert (that being our title publication) that appears in the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun and includes human interest stories from the fictional French city of Ennui-sur-Blasé -- it's essentially a skit movie. To be fair, we're told upfront what's coming, and that is a few brief segments and three stories to fill the 100 or so minute runtime.

The problem is that beyond being told by journalists, they aren't otherwise interconnected (which, one would think, could have been easy to pull off), and thus come off as standalone bits. To make matters worse, there's no emotional investment in any of them or the characters that appear in them. All are present simply to serve the master storyteller in delivering as much quirkiness as possible.

Beyond seeing flashbacks showing the editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), and his staff (that include Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, and many others present mostly as space filler), there's a bit featuring Owen Wilson as bicycling journalist Herbsaint Sazerac who acts as a tour guide of sorts reporting on the minutiae of Ennui-Sur-Blasé (which is perhaps the most packed bit of quirkiness to be found in the film).

That's followed by reporter J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) addressing a forum of some sort and telling the tale of Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) and his art, including using one of the guards, Simone (Lea Seydoux), as his muse, not to mention his nude model. But it's his other works that have drawn the eye of another inmate, Julian Cadazio (Adrien Brody) who wants to get into the Moses art business with his business partners and uncles (played by Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban in throwaway parts).

The second story has journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) reporting on student protests and literally getting into bed with one of them, Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet), despite him having a girlfriend in Juliette (Lyna Khoudri). The final act has Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) appearing on a talk show (hosted by Liev Schreiber) who tells the tale of a kidnapped 6-year-old boy, Gigi (Winston Ait Hellal), and how a police chef, Nescaffier (Stephen Park), used his culinary skills to save him.

While you'll never be bored from a visual standpoint as the director deploys his usual tricks and a few new ones, the stories and the characters within them don't engage beyond being slathered in whimsy and quirkiness.

If you're a diehard fan of the filmmaker's works, you might nonetheless enjoy what's offered, and I imagine many film critics -- who, let's be honest, are likely his biggest fans -- will go gaga over the bevy of all things Anderson-quirk.

For me, it was simply an overload of that very quality that's made most of his previous films work so well. In short, it's all style over substance, and like being around a non-stop quirky person, it gets old rather quickly. And for that, "The French Dispatch" rates as just a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed October 13, 2021 / Posted October 22, 2021


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