The auteur theory lives on in Anderson's well-performed, intricately staged homage to a time when editors and journalists were believed -- and beloved. While it's not necessary to read the New Yorker archives to enjoy The French Dispatch, it helps to be familiar with Baldwin, Lillian Ross, Mavis Gallant, Joseph Mitchell, Wallace Shawn, and other members of the United States' mid-20th century literati. All of the actors, whether longtime Anderson company members or new additions to his ensemble, seem to be having a grand time, but the standout heavy lifting is done by Wright, McDormand, Chalamet (whose role was reportedly written specifically for him), and Swinton. Léa Seydoux gives a mostly wordless (and nude) performance as Del Toro's prison guard/lover/muse. Wilson, Brody, Murray, and the gang are fun to watch, naturally, but Anderson's films aren't as much about the actors as they are about the director himself.
Here's where Anderson and his crew shine: the intricate set-building and art direction. Every detail in The French Dispatch, from the hilarious "The Kids Are Grumpy" graffiti to the prison-art gallery pieces to the mannered hair and costumes, looks as purposeful and precise as in a stop-action film. Part of that meticulous style, however, is that the emotional core of Anderson's films is secondary to the overall aesthetic. One needn't be a film student to pick out what Anderson's movies look like, but what they make audiences feel is a different story. There's laughter, there's melancholy, there's appreciation of everything from the clever character and place names to the absurdity of Tony Revolori and Del Toro playing the same character at different stages in his adult life. But ultimately, the movie remains emotionally at a distance, and for a story about journalists, that may be appropriate ("journalistic neutrality" is remarked upon at least four or five times), but it's also a bit disappointing. Go for the iconic Anderson touches, stay for a few notable moments and scenes, and recall the great foreign correspondents of the past, but don't expect some grand revelation.