The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
Directed by Wes Anderson
Screenplay by Wes Anderson, Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Hugo Guinness, Jason Schwartzman
Starring Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudn, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson
Although I haven’t seen every film in his oeuvre (I’m rectifying that via Criterion’s recent flash sale), I hold Wes Anderson’s films close to my chest. “The Royal Tenenbaums” was the first Anderson experience I’d had. With his closely-knit dry, droll humor, which is as quick as the images that grace his canvas, he manages to capture the warmth of humanity of even the most obtuse of situations. I thought his “Isle of Dogs” from 2018 would be my favorite of his films, which I had the pleasure of hearing him speak during that film’s premiere at SXSW.
Now, then, “The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun” one-ups “Isle of Dogs” as it graces our screens in a limited release this weekend, expanding nationwide on October 29th.
Anderson gathers his stable of thespians as journalists and their subjects, namely Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Angelica Huston, and gleefully adds Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, and Jeffrey Wright as crucial characters.
The French Dispatch is set in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Within its walls is Arthur Howitzer Jr, the editor of the French Dispatch, played by Bill Murray. His staff’s assignment is to write the newspaper’s epitaph, and what follows are three loosely tied together vignettes that depict their writers’ strengths and most prolific stories.
In J.K.L. Berensen’s “The Concrete Masterpiece,” Berenson, played by Tilda Swinton, outlines the incarcerated Moses Rosenthaler’s (Benecio del Toro; the younger version of the character played by “The Grand Budapest Hotel” star Tony Revolori) ascent as an abstract artist who captures the attention of Adrien Brody’s Julien Cadazio. Rosenthaler is a brute with a heart of gold and del Toro’s performance, infused with his fierce eyes and sense of humor is easily the strongest of this vignette. As his muse Simone, Léa Seydoux is provocatively funny in a strict sense. The piece focuses on Rosenthaler’s masterpiece and Cadazio’s efforts to promote him and his uncles (Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban). This vignette captures Swinton’s straight-laced, self-deprecating retelling of the story in front of a gaggle of scholars. Still, it is del Toro’s and Seydoux’s performances that capture the humor in the situation; a strong start to the trio of vignettes.
In Lucinda Krementz’s “Revisions of a Manifesto,” Frances McDormand plays the straight-laced, no-nonsense Krementz who captures the French student revolution of 69. Amongst the students is Zeffirelli, played by Timothée Chalamet, whose manifesto issues students’ demands to stop the war. A gifted, if stuck-up writer, Zeffirelli attracts the attention of Krementz in both a professional and a romantic capacity. Chalamet casts off the pouty, overly dramatic performances he’s offered us in the past and, in its place, uses his dramatic humor to carry himself and his mustache off. McDormand is a national treasure, and her straight-up modesty plays the spirit for what it is. This vignette is perhaps the weakest of the trio, but it isn’t for the lack of acting. It’s a hard act to follow Benicio del Toro, to be fair.
“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” by Roebuck Wright is perhaps the best of the three pieces. Jeffrey Wright plays Wright, a food journalist who covers the kidnapping of a Commissaire’s (Mathieu Amalric) son (Winston Ait Hellal). Stephen Park plays Lt. Nescaffier, who doubles as a police officer and a chef. Wright, the character, conveys his experience through a talk showpiece with Liev Schreiber as the host. There’s a raw honesty in Wright, the actor’s performance as his journey encircles the events of the kidnapping. Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, and Saoirse Ronan co-star.
Throughout “The French Dispatch,” cinematographer Robert Yeoman uses the 1.33:1 aspect ratio to create an intimacy with a washed-out appearance to the color while employing a broader scope for some scenes through a 2.35:1 frame and black and white imagery for other scenes, to great effect.
It occurs to me that Anderson was inspired in a way by the Zucker Brothers’ “The Naked Gun” television series from the early 80s, a show filled with top-line casts and irreverent, gag-filled vignettes. Anderson’s take on the events is more dramatic as they unfold in “The French Dispatch;” a corresponding humanity curses through this joyous ode to journalism that I appreciated because it manages to take its subjects seriously, even in the face of the dramatic hilarity that ensues.
Make no mistake – “The French Dispatch” will appeal to Anderson’s fans, and casual viewers might find more to appreciate in his earlier works before delving into this film. Anderson’s films keep getting better and better, and “The French Dispatch” is worthy of your time.
R, 103 minutes, Searchlight Pictures/Indian Paintbrush, American Empirical Pictures