By Reed Ripley
The French Dispatch
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Drama/Comedy/Romance| R | 1 hr 48 min
Exclusively In Theaters
The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s love letter to expatriate journalists of a bygone era, is about as Wes Anderson as Wes Anderson can get, and for those with whom it connects, it’s a film that’ll be just as good (or better) on the twelfth watch as the first.
It’s incredible how closely watching this film resembles the experience of piecing through an issue of a longform magazine like The New Yorker, on which The French Dispatch is ostensibly based. You’ve got Owen Wilson’s segment, a “talk of the town” piece in which Wilson’s character rides his bike wistfully and somewhat melancholically through the streets of aptly named Ennui and comments on its citizens and the passage of time; Tilda Swinton’s segment, a profile of an acclaimed and mysterious artist whose homicidal youth placed him in the company of a prison guard who became his muse and whose pieces spur a modern art movement; Frances McDormand’s segment, an embedded journalism story following a youth countercultural protest movement in the streets of Ennui that culminates in a critical chess match between one of the movement’s leaders and the town’s mayor (and featuring a love affair between McDormand and Timothée Chalamet’s character); and Jeffrey Wright’s segment, a wild but touching story featuring an unexpected kidnapping, the responsible cabal of underworld types, and a legendary police station chef. Each story is engrossing to the point it’s almost sad when each ends and the next begins, and each pulls the viewer (née reader) into its own world.
Stretching back to Royal Tenenbaums, if incredible and deep casts have partially defined Anderson’s films, then French Dispatch is the crescendo. The bench is at least 12 deep with great performances, and the film’s anthological nature plays to the depth. The actors come in for five, 10, 20 minutes stretches (sometimes even less) and throw absolute heaters, which lends to an engaging and delightful experience that turns as quickly as the dialogue. For example, Elizabeth Moss, one of the best screen actors going right now, can’t have been on screen for more than 90 seconds, and she still found a way to add to the film and deliver a memorable performance.
This being a Wes Anderson film, it has a certain set of characteristics that follow his filmmaking style to a T, and as such, there is bound to be a section of moviegoers with which it just doesn’t click. Almost every film critic has used the word “twee” to describe his films, and The French Dispatch is no different. There’s a sentimental, earnest, and nostalgic quality that permeates the film, but that tends to turn sickly sweet at times, especially if you’re not on board to start. Often not far after “twee” comes comparisons to a diorama, and again, this film does nothing to divorce itself from that stereotype. If anything, the compilation of short stories leans even harder into the diorama of it all, as each tale engenders its own sandbox in which Anderson gets to play with every spare inch of the frame. There’s always something to look at in the background, and while for some that’s a thrilling prospect, to others it’s headache-inducing.
But for anyone outside those who simply can’t stand Wes Anderson and his eccentricities, The French Dispatch can’t be described as anything other than “lovely,” even if it puts longform journalism on a pedestal it may or may not have ever occupied.