By Will Johnson
“The French Dispatch” is the newest Wes Anderson movie, and is his self-described “love letter to journalists.” It is structured as a collection of short stories that appear as articles in the final issue of the fictional “Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.” The film stars an ensemble cast of actors like Bill Murray, Benicio Del Toro, Jeffrey Wright, Timothee Chalamet, and Frances McDormand to name a few, but this barely scratches the surface of the list. Even big-name actors like Willem Dafoe, Christoph Waltz, and Liev Schreiber settle for minor roles in the film, some even as small as a few seconds.
“The French Dispatch” contains the idiosyncratic style that has come to be expected from Wes Anderson’s films. The beautiful uses of symmetry, unique color palettes, busy framing, and highly detailed set and costume design make the movie extremely visually captivating.
To add to this, there are no weak actors in the entire movie. Each performance captures their respective character well and every actor delivers Wes Anderson’s dry, witty dialogue with perfection. Yet with such a large ensemble cast to juggle, most performances are brief and underdeveloped. Characters like Billy Murray’s “Arthur Howitzer Jr.” barely have any time to shine. Despite being the focal point of the entire movie, Howitzer Jr. seems quite forgotten for most of the film. Similarly, when big names are given minuscule screen time, insert shots of Christoph Waltz or infrequent cuts to Willem Dafoe in prison only distract the viewer from the actual important aspects of the film.
However, whether the role was big or small, the actors were given much to work with, as the dialogue is sharp, and the humor almost always lands. The characters they portray, while outlandish, are believable since they are placed in an equally eccentric world. This is brought on by masterfully crafted set and costume design. They all work together to create a unique feeling in each vignette, whether that be the frustration of a tortured artist in a prison or the sexual awakening of young students starting a revolution. There is so much attention to detail in every single frame with every aspect of the composition thoughtfully interwoven to create a highly immersive and engaging film.
Yet the film begins to fall apart when it comes to the structure: an overarching story about a deceased newspaper editor and the three stories that make up the final issue. Whereas most anthologies are connected by themes at the very least, each of “The French Dispatch’s” three main stories are both spatially and temporally separate and have no discernable thematic connection.
There is a brief tour of Ennui-sur-Blasé called “The Cycling Reporter” that comes before the three large stories. However, it is far shorter and less developed than the others and ends up being fairly forgettable. The first true news story is “The Concrete Masterpiece” and covers a troubled artist in prison for murder. Personally, this was my favorite of the three and it kept me engaged the entire time (something I took for granted as the movie progressed). The second news story, “Revisions of a Manifesto,” tells a humorous story of students starting a revolution. Unfortunately, it is the least focused of the three and often gets bogged down by trying to do too much at once. The third and final story is “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” This is the story of a reporter who gets swept up in a police kidnapping while trying to profile a famous chef. Despite this being the most action-packed and surprisingly thought-provoking of the three, the format of the film had become quite exhausting at this point and I found myself wishing to skim this article.
Similarly, by turning a newspaper into a movie, “The French Dispatch” also captures the flaws of reading a newspaper and enunciates them even further. People rarely read the entirety of articles and have the option to stop reading whenever they grow disinterested or simply pick and choose the ones that seem interesting. “The French Dispatch” does not give this option. It subjects you to roughly 30 minutes of runtime for each story, a time far longer than any article would take to read. This disconnect between the length of the vignette and the density of the narrative makes it feel as if each story overstays its welcome.
Much of the fun of watching an anthology is trying to find the thematic connection between each piece. It acts as a type of puzzle for the viewers to keep them engaged even as the characters and narrative continuously reset. However, without this connection, “The French Dispatch” feels like a constant viewing of different short stories back-to-back. While this is not necessarily a bad thing on its own, it just means that no matter how entertaining each story is alone, the movie as a whole rarely clicks.
Overall, “The French Dispatch” is an intelligent film that is beautiful to look at, but has a story that is unfortunately never able to be as captivating as its spectacular visuals. While each of the main stories are entertaining on their own, the movie is far too disconnected to work as a whole. I enjoyed the first story the most, followed by the second, and then the third the least so. Yet after leaving the theater I found myself wondering if that opinion would hold true if the order of the vignettes had been rearranged. “The French Dispatch” feels like Wes Anderson had numerous unrelated ideas for short films and made his best attempt at finding a way to bring them together. Because of this, one’s enjoyment of the film truly depends on their patience as the movie continuously resets itself.