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Movie Review: The French Dispatch love letter to ‘The New Yorker’

Watching The French Dispatch is like seeing an issue of The New Yorker come to life. Wes Anderson’s new film is based on articles of a fictional magazine published in a fictional city in France.

The French Dispatch is Wes Anderson’s tenth feature film. The new film “The French Dispatch” is kind of like seeing a classic issue of The New Yorker come to life. It’s based on the colorful articles of a fictional magazine run by a grumpy but respectable editor, played by Bill Murray.

This means, even before the lights go down in the theater, you know two things about it already, and for certain:

Thing One: It will be meticulously, painstakingly constructed. A rigorous attention to detail and an exacting eye for a highly defined personal aesthetic will come baked into its every frame, from the set design to the cinematography to its color palette(s) to its dialogue to its performances. Also,

Thing Two: It’s never gonna let you forget about Thing One. Anderson’s films are all about artifice, about the theater of it all. He wants us to remain fully aware that we are watching his movies, to make us complicit in the act of observing. Know, for example, that The French Dispatch contains a sequence that shifts to animation to dramatize a high-speed chase, and another that transforms one character’s memory into a literal theatrical production. The film employs several freeze-framed tableaux of crowd scenes for us to admire, and as Anderson’s camera pans sloooowly across them, he wants us to notice that he’s not employing a photographic technique — he’s simply asked his actors to hold stock-still, unblinking. (They mostly do.)

Eye-candy is still candy, after all

Let’s agree: Anderson’s films are a pleasure to watch, in the moment. All that fastidiousness, all that assiduously symmetrical framing, all the sheer, cinematographic sweat-equity he puts into his movies for our enjoyment — not to mention the appearance of his go-to cadre of actors like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton — can’t help but leave you grinning from ear-to-ear as you gaze up at the screen.

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But what happens once once the film’s over and the lights go up? Will that highly specific feeling of pleasure stick with you? Or was all that eye-candy just so much sugar floss that dissolves in the lightest rain? That’s the real question before us.

The classic knock on Wes Anderson is that his fondness for extreme stylization too easily overwhelms the story — and the senses. If he doesn’t bother to connect his signature, fussily cinematic vision to anything resembling human emotion, it quickly devolves into nothing more than a posture — simple archness, mere satire, an exquisite but empty shell, a Rube Goldberg dollhouse.

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Whenever we viewers sense that a filmmaker’s devoted more thought to how to compose a given shot than what’s at stake within it, we tend to get worried. If you don’t care about your characters, we think, why should you expect us to? You’re so focused on the window dressing, you’ve forgotten that you’re supposed to be selling us the dang clothes.

This is likely why those Anderson movies driven by directly relatable emotional states of being like familial sadness (The Royal Tenenbaums), adolescent alienation (Rushmore) or romantic longing (The Grand Budapest Hotel) find wider, more devoted audiences than films like The Life Aquatic or The Darjeeling Limited, in which the filmmaker’s baseline misanthropy is allowed to drive the action.

Move over Tenenbaums, ‘French Dispatch’ is Wes Anderson’s most Jewish film yet

Happily, The French Dispatch proves itself to be an act of devotion — both to a specific kind of writing, and to human attachment itself. Movie starring Jewish heartthrob Timothée Chalamet has chapters focusing on Jewish protagonists and characters based on Jewish journalists from The New Yorker

JTA — Jewishness has been at the fringes of several of Wes Anderson’s movies, but the famed director has never had an explicitly Jewish main character — until now.

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In “Rushmore,” one of the non-Jewish director’s breakout works, the lead role is played by Jewish actor Jason Schwartzman, while the Tenenbaums of “The Royal Tenenbaums” is heavily inspired by the (likely) Jewish Glass family members, who show up throughout Jewish author J.D. Salinger’s stories.

Though the Whitmans, another wealthy and disaffected New York clan who feature in “The Darjeeling Limited,” aren’t Jewish, two of the Whitman brothers are played by Jewish actors — Schwartzman and Adrien Brody. Then there was “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which was based on the writings of Stefan Zweig, a Jewish novelist who fled Europe during the Holocaust.

Anderson’s latest film, “The French Dispatch” — which hit theaters Friday, over a year after its originally planned release date thanks to the pandemic — is his most Jewish work to date.

The movie, openly inspired by Anderson’s nearly lifelong love of The New Yorker magazine, concerns the European outpost of a fictional Kansas-based newspaper, whose American expat writers channel the New Yorker’s highbrow sensibility (often in very humorous fashion). The film is split into four sections, each following a different writer in pursuit of a different story for The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.