‘The French Dispatch’: Great actors bloom again in a small world

From “The Royal Tenenbaums” to “Rushmore,” from “The Grand Budapest Hotel” to “Moonrise Kingdom,” the writer-director Wes Anderson is a greatly skilled miniaturist who consistently produces finely honed, exquisitely rendered works that inspire great admiration while usually leaving one a little bit … chilly.

We admire these films. We appreciate the pinpoint dialogue and the gorgeously appointed sets and the memorably creative imagery and the performances from the Ensemble of Wes Anderson Regulars and other A-list talents — but that respect nearly always comes from a bit of a distance. It’s as if we’re in a museum of modern art and we’re silently applauding the latest exhibit, but our tear ducts remain desert-dry.

This is most certainly the case with Anderson’s latest effort, the three-part journalism anthology “The French Dispatch,” a wry and deliberately stagey, visually stunning albeit uneven but ultimately shining nugget of a film with some memorably funny and clever set pieces, and a bevy of fine performances from a cast that includes Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Timothee Chalamet (finally getting some work!), Tilda Swinton, Benicio del Toro, Lea Seydoux, Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson and Frances McDormand, so yes the world’s finest actors are drawn to Anderson’s projects.

Constructed as a love letter to the New Yorker in its glorious 20th century heyday and legendary editors such as Harold Ross and William Shawn, “The French Dispatch” is a cinematic magazine index featuring an Obituary, a Travel column and three lengthy and meandering and richly creative Feature Stories. The obit is for the founding editor of the magazine called The French Dispatch — one Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), who departed from Kansas a half-century prior and established a literary magazine with a global reach, as he mentored some of the finest writers in the world. Alas, Arthur has stipulated that when he goes, the magazine goes with him, so this will be the final edition of The French Dispatch.

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Set in the fictional city of Ennui-sur-Blasé, and how’s that for a Wes Anderson locale, “The French Dispatch” features the bicycling travel correspondent Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson), who acts as our tour guide of this quaint and historic village and remains dedicated to his mission even as he keeps on crashing his bike in a series of mishaps that usually wind up with offscreen bang. We also meet the likes of copy editor Alumna (Elisabeth Moss), cartoonist Hermes Jones (Jason Schwartzman) and staffers played by Griffin Dunne and Fisher Stevens, but they’re essentially bit players, framing the three main stories:

In “The Concrete Masterpiece,” art correspondent J.K.L Berensen (Tilda Swinton) delivers a lecture at a Kansas art center on the life and works of one Moses Ronsenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), who while serving time for a double homicide had become an international sensation for his paintings of a no-nonsense prison guard named Simone (Lea Seydoux), who poses nude for him and becomes his lover. Adrien Brody plays the petulant art dealer who befriends Moses and exploits his work, which includes a masterpiece that can’t be sold because it’s literally painted on the concrete walls of the prison. This is the funniest and most entertaining of the three main segments.

The middle section is called “Revisions to Manifesto,” a black-and-white, absurdist take on the protests in France in 1968, with Frances McDormand as the tightly wound essayist Lucinda Krementz and Timothee Chalamet as the charismatic and naïve student revolutionary who becomes Lucinda’s unlikely lover. This is the weakest link and feels overlong and too mannered, even for the sometimes-precious Anderson.
Finally, there’s “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” the most far-out tale of the bunch, with Jeffrey Wright as the food writer Roebuck Wright, who turns in an overlong story that only tangentially mentions food, as it’s mostly about a gang of artsy kidnappers (including Saoirse Ronan) who purloin the commissioner’s son (Winston Ait Hellal) and demand the release of the crooked accountant known as the Abacus (and hey, there’s Willem Dafoe getting in on the fun). It’s in this section where Anderson takes his highest flight of fancy, both in the narrative and in the visual flourishes. It’s quite ludicrous but then again, that seems to be the point.

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