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'The French Dispatch' review: Wes Anderson outdoes himself

(From L-R): Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton,

(From L-R): Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in "The French Dispatch."   Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film

PLOT An anthology of stories from a fictional literary magazine.

CAST Benicio Del Toro, Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright, Timothée Chalamet

RATED R (nudity, language, adult themes)

LENGTH 1:48

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE Writer-director Wes Anderson and an ensemble cast deliver an endlessly creative series of stand-alone stories.

If Generation X is defined by its tendency to view all of life as a cultural pastiche, then the X-iest filmmaker of all is Wes Anderson. Quentin Tarantino may have seen more movies, Richard Linklater may own more vintage vinyl, but Anderson is an insatiable dilettante-polymath who seems to have absorbed every piece of created material he has ever encountered, be it written, filmed, painted or composed.

That’s been clear at least since 2001’s "The Royal Tenenbaums," his breakout blend of J.D. Salinger, Orson Welles and classic rock, but Anderson outdoes himself on his latest, officially titled "The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun." Inspired by Anderson’s favorite magazine, The New Yorker, the movie centers on a fictional postwar publication based in the cheekily named town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. Broken into three separate feature stories, plus a travel essay and an obituary, "The French Dispatch" frees Anderson from the limitations of a single narrative, allowing him to squeeze more of his vast cultural knowledge — and possibly his largest cast yet — into a two-hour running time.

This he does with inexhaustible energy and creativity, marshaling every visual and storytelling trick he can manage. Tilda Swinton, as a frosty-haired art historian, gives us a lecture on Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro), an incarcerated painter who inspires an entire movement from prison thanks to a roguish art dealer (Adrien Brody). Timothée Chalamet plays Zeffirelli, a student revolutionary who in the middle of a May 1968-style uprising falls for the much-older journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). Meanwhile, editor Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (loosely based on The New Yorker’s beloved co-founder Harold Ross, and played by Bill Murray), strikes paragraphs and complains about expense accounts.

Amid all this amiable absurdity comes a surprise: A journalist-gadabout named Roebuck Wright, a clear stand-in for James Baldwin (with a bit of A.J. Liebling thrown in). Impeccably dressed, impossibly sophisticated and ruefully gay, Roebuck is played by Jeffrey Wright in a moving turn that lifts him head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. Though Roebuck’s tale is essentially an extended wisecrack about French cuisine, the character is too human and vulnerable for Anderson to treat lightly. Wright’s performance makes sure of it.

There’s so much packed in here — stories within stories, color that gives way to black-and-white, an animated sequence — that such major stars as Owen Wilson, Elisabeth Moss and Saoirse Ronan are reduced to cameos. As with many an Anderson film, you may leave wondering what, exactly, the whole thing was all about. It might be enough to say that "The French Dispatch" is a love letter from one artist to the many others who inspired him.

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