The French Dispatch
Credit: Searchlight Pictures

The French Dispatch is set, as some geography sleuths may have already deduced, in France, specifically a scenic little (fictional) village called Ennui-sur-Blasé. But where it takes place is not so much a spot on a map as a state of mind: the whimsical, arcane dreamworld of the Wes Anderson Cinematic Universe — a fantastical land of living dioramas and deadpan picaresques, stacked cameos and labyrinthine set design. A logical person might ask what the movie (in theaters Oct. 22) is actually about; only a fool or a forensic film detective could attempt to answer that.

The players, at least, will be immediately familiar to anyone who has visited these Wes coasts before: Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe. Also Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Saoirse Ronan, Léa Seydoux, Liev Schrieber, Jeffrey Wright, and Elisabeth Moss. (Anjelica Huston, naturally, narrates). The year is nominally 1975, and Murray is the gruff owner-editor of the titular magazine, a periodical spun from "a largely unread Sunday supplement" of his native Liberty, Kansas.

The Dispatch's subjects, divided into chapters like a live-action New Yorker newsletter, are as willfully far-flung as they are strange: In the first, a lecture on a madman painter (del Toro) and his prison-guard muse (a steely, extremely nude Seydoux) whose work is frantically pursued by an eager investor (Brody) and his two elderly uncles (Henry Winkler and Bob Balaban, whom it might be best to call silent partners). Swinton, her wig and gown glowing Heatmiser orange, is our tipsy, confiding tour guide. In the next, it's a much sterner McDormand — a veteran reporter caught up with a student rebellion leader played by Chalamet with electrified young-Einstein hair and a penchant for pretty young radicals and grand manifestos.

Then there's Jeffrey Wright's soulful, sad-eyed Roebuck, whose purported beat is food and beverages, but whose coverage extends to the kidnapping case of a little boy caught up in a rogue crew that includes Ronan as a strung-out showgirl and somehow, a permed Dafoe trapped in a chicken coop. Roebuck is recounting his tale on some kind of '70s talk show set to a suave Schreiber, who appears to be following the story's spiraling tangents only marginally better than his audience. Can you blame him? The dialogue is so dense and discursive that it often seems to be running at time-and-a-half speed, and there is, as it were, no narrative arc to be found, other than the vague framing device of a central death.

There's hardly a director working today whose output is as stylistically distinct and instantly recognizable as Anderson's; at this point, he's become both an adjective and a genre unto himself. Dispatch often feels like the filmmaker in concentrate form, both his best and worst instincts on extravagant display. The movie is undeniably clever and intoxicating to look at, and his actors seem to thrill at the chance to chase the chemtrails of his wildly esoteric storylines. But he also seems to have lost (or simply lost interest in) the human emotions and sensical plots that tethered earlier gems like Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums — and even his most recent film, 2018's bittersweet stop-motion reverie Isle of Dogs — to something more like real recognizable life. Dispatch is a trip, quite literally: a journey of remarkable, impenetrable design, with no destination in sight. Grade: B

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