The giddy whimsy that’s been Wes Anderson’s brand since his earliest films is more subdued, the ornate, baroque world of “family” or “family where you find it” a lot more cluttered in “The French Dispatch.”
Let others make intermission-length Netflix indulgences or move into endless streaming series. He packs so many droll asides, sight gags, visual puns and pithy one-liners into 108 minutes that it will take more than one viewing to absorb, digest and appreciate them all, rather like peak era New Yorker Magazine issues from the late ’60s and early ’70s.
That’s the movie’s reason for being, its organizing principle. Anderson’s made a witty, densely-textured New Yorker of a film, so stuffed with characters played by famous actors that most are — if not given short shrift — not on screen enough to merit their status.
Film stars who used to flock to Woody for the mere chance of being in one of his films now flock to Wes.
It has another grand turn by Tilda Swinton, playing an upper class art expert who is a little Anna Wintour, a dab of Diana Vreeland and the merest soupcon of society doyenne and chat show wit Kitty Carlisle Hart.
Frances McDormand, Benicio del Toro, Léa Seydoux and “the usual suspects” — Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Anjelica Huston (narrating) and Bill Murray — stand out and register in ways that actors rarely do in small parts outside the world of Wes Anderson.
And it finishes with a flourish, a defining star turn by Jeffrey Wright playing an essayist, social commentator and food editor who is the most uncanny and amusing interpretation of James Baldwin ever to hit the screen. The character’s name might be Roebuck Wright, and his plummy-voiced TV chat show appearance with Liev Schreiber and not William F. Buckley Jr. But there’s no mistaking this dapper man of many, many perfectly chosen words relating his essay on the cuisine of the French police in the form of a manic kidnapping farce dashing through “The Hovel District” and “The Flop District” of “Ennui-sur-Blasé,” a city/section of suburban Paris.
Roebuck Wright gets lost, and explains it the way only James Baldwin would — “a weakness in cartography, a curse of the homosexual.”
Anderson organizes his film in departments, beginning with an editor’s note forward, which tells us the history of The French Dispatch of the Liberty & Kansas Evening Sun and its Man of Standards editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Murray), who ordained that the magazine is to be shuttered, its brand typeface melted down upon his death.
His two edicts? “Try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose,” and “No crying.”
Wilson is beret-wearing Herbsaint Sazerac, “The Cycling Reporter” who covers the city’s seamy side with the poetry of the pathological over-writer, delivering rhapsodic prose (each “reporter” acts out his or her “story” or essay) that is “impossible to fact check,” grammar Nazi editors played by Elizabeth Moss and Fisher Stevens complain. The bicycle makes for some grand slapstick.
McDormand is Lucinda Krementz, a thorough political reporter who is so “above” the idea of journalistic impartiality that she pitches in with the Paris student protests and riots of 1968 and even helps a mop-topped leader (Timothée Chalamet) write his “manifesto” while he sleeps in her bed, an oh-so-French arrangement and way of covering “The Chess Board Revolution” fought by “the pimple cream and wet dream” set.
Chalamet’s student leader Zeffirelli may be under-developed, his one joke “I’m ashamed of my new muscle.” But nude or in tweeds, with or without his omnipresent Gauloise cigarillo, he is the very image of the naive idealism and beauty of youth.
Statuesque Swinton, wearing false teeth and an evening gown, gives a lecture to enthralled art lovers based on her character’s historical tale “The Concrete Masterpiece,” the life of an artist (del Toro) and his prison guard/muse (Seydoux, flinty, fierce and dazzling) as the morose convicted murderer paints her –sometimes literally dabbing at her nude body — whenever she lets him out of his straight jacket.
Brody is the tax-evader/art dealer fellow inmate who, with the support of his backer/uncles (Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban) tries to make the artist/curmudgeon into a star and themselves rich in the process.
Oscar-winner del Toro, his beard spattered with paint, is the personification of the artist in ennui, or Ennui (prison) — “What do you want to paint?” “The future.” “All great beauties withhold their deepest secrets.”
And Wright’s “food scene” reporter/poet/essayist turns his “typographic memory” on a French police chief (Mathieu Amalric), his department’s chef (Steve Park) and fine dining interrupted by the kidnapping of the chief’s little boy by a gang led by a chauffeur/failed musician (Edward Norton).
Much of the playfulness of “The French Dispatch” is in the ways Anderson tells these stories — his usual deadpan-to-the-camera extreme close-ups, drolleries delivered at screwball comedy speed, the Halloween candy color palette of all.
Mise en scene is paramount in Anderson pictures, and the production design here, from towering, ancient French apartments — viewed in long shot so that we can take in the entire tableaux, all sorts of characters engaging in many different actions at once — invites comparison to great film moments by Keaton, Tati and Jerry Lewis.
Anderson shifts between color and black and white, sometimes as a way of differentiating between the fictive present and the past, sometimes on a whim. A car chase devolves into something so complicated and cute it simply has to be finished off in animation. Split screens break down the action, much of it set to an ironically plaintive solo piano score, but with a dash of classical music, jazz and pop.
The life story of the artist Moses Rosenthaler is told with Anderson favorite Tony Revolori (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) portraying the murderously headstrong Artist as a Young Man, with Revolori literally handing off the role — his character’s necklace, etc. — to del Toro for the “present day” scenes, a simple and elegant touch that no one but Anderson would think of.
It never gets up to the gallop of the giddiest Anderson outings, never finds the heart of a “Royal Tenenbaums” or “Isle of Dogs.”
It’s more self-conscious than usual for Anderson (and that’s saying something) and traffics in character “types.”
The list of great actors with roles seriously shortchanged here ranges from Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe to Moss, Murray, Lois Smith and Rupert Friend.
But this magazine of a movie is something to be savored, a rarefied delight that’s intellectually aspirational, as the great magazines used to be. It rewards the well-read, the art observer, the film lover, the Francophile and the Wes Anderson fanatic.
And our reward is that we get to peruse it again and again, finding fresh fun in each new viewing.
Rating: R “for graphic nudity,” some sexual references and language (profanity)
Cast: Frances McDormand, Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Moss, Léa Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Steve Park, Bob Balaban, Timothée Chalamet, Henry Winkler, Mathieu Amalric, Lyna Khoudri, Lois Smith and Tony Revolori
Credits: Scripted and directed by Wes Anderson. A Searchlight Pictures release.
Running time: 1:48