Despite A-list cast, weak story lines mar ‘French Dispatch’

Despite A-list cast, weak story lines mar ‘French Dispatch’

Wes Anderson only makes a certain type of movie, and his films can seem like extended versions of avant-garde student films to the uninitiated viewer.

There is often a lot of narration, title cards, multiple timelines and strange dialogue. The characters, while many, are richly layered even in the smallest of roles. In addition, the best of them – like “The Grand Budapest Hotel” – give the viewer a truly engrossing story.

Anderson’s newest, “The French Dispatch” has four stories. Sadly, only two of them even approach the level of engrossing.

As he usually does, Anderson cast a minimum of two dozen highly recognizable actors. Some of them, like Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe and Christoph Waltz, are hardly in it. Anderson is clearly beloved enough that they do this as a personal favor because they relish the chance to play even a tiny role in a high-class production. The audience also makes better connections with the characters when all the faces are familiar.

Confusing narration

Appearing in every one of Anderson’s films but his first, Bill Murray stars in “The French Dispatch” as Arthur Howitzer, aging owner of a mid-20th century magazine. With some confusing narration, we find out that the magazine, also named The French Dispatch, operates out of Kansas and has a stable of famous writers at its employ.

The staff is full of people like Jason Schwartzman, Elizabeth Moss and Fisher Stevens. I really wanted to spend more time observing their camaraderie. Unfortunately for me, three of the magazine’s writers each tell a different story for the bulk of the film.

The first story, told by Tilda Swinton, portrays an imprisoned painter played by Benicio Del Toro. He meets a lesser criminal (Adrien Brody) who just happens to be a major purveyor in the art scene. Cadazio (Brody) is released and immediately begins turning Rosenthaler (Del Toro) into a star. Fine acting and some wonderfully staged scenes save this tale, but Anderson’s decision for Del Toro to play the reserved character and Brody to play the unhinged one was a misstep. I much prefer the reverse.

Frances McDormand tells the second story as a journalist who has trouble staying neutral during a student uprising in mid-century France. Timothée Chalamet plays a student leader who falls for McDormand. I found myself not even rushing back from the bathroom during this part.

Best tale

The third tale, told by Jeffrey Wright, represents the best of the three. Wright reveals to a talk show host (Liev Schreiber) that he remembers every single word he has written. He recounts how – during a sublime dinner with the police commissioner – the commissioner’s son is kidnapped. Wright goes on an adventure, dodging bullets, making surreptitious plans and touting the culinary exploits of the local police lieutenant. Snappy dialogue and truly interesting characters help this story end the movie well.

The epilogue brings us back to the magazine staff and their attempt at an obituary for the recently deceased Howitzer. This great scene  sadly made me wish for the movie that never was. B-

Jeff Mellinger

Jeff Mellinger is a screen writer and film buff. He holds a BA in Film Studies and an MFA in film production. He lives in Concord.