There’s been a whole hullabaloo on social media regarding The French Dispatch, with disgruntled Twitter account owners accusing Wes Anderson of relying on the laurels of being Wes Anderson, and like…yeah dude…what do you expect? There’s this expectation in the social media age of film for filmmakers to make every single type of film and do completely different work every time a new film rolls along. Everyone wants the auteurs to make a Marvel movie, or a horror film, or make something more grounded and conventional for mass appeal and I’m calling bullshit. Why the hell would you want to go to a Wes Anderson film and not get Wes Anderson? If I’m spending $10-20 for a movie ticket expecting something, I better damn well get it, even if it doesn’t work for me (*cough*Isle of Dogs*cough*), I want to at least feel not lied to. Even then, sometimes fantastic filmmakers do something out of their comfort zone and don’t succeed. Current reigning Best Director Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao’s post-Nomadland Marvel film Eternals is debuting to a near-franchise low score on Metacritic, and, as much as I respect her boldness in following up such intimate work with a grandiose blockbuster, sometimes consistency in expectation is a bit more comforting.
And if The French Dispatch has anything in spades, it’s consistency in expectation. This is a Wes Anderson film, warts and all, to its absolute core.
The French Dispatch follows the assembly of the final issue of the American newspaper, The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun, based and distributed out of Ennui, France. The film is roughly broken up into three chapters, each detailing a story from the area from separate sections of the publication. The first story, The Concrete Masterpiece follows an incarcerated artist (Benicio del Toro) as he paints his magnum opus, not just in the prison he’s confined to, but on the prison he’s confined to. The next chapter, Revisions to a Manifesto, follows the young leader (Timothée Chalamet) of a local student riot as he struggles with perfecting his manifesto of demands with the help of French Dispatch journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand). The final chapter, The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner, follows food journalist Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) as he samples the tastes of the Ennui police commissioner’s (Mathieu Amalric) personal chef (Stephen Park) before the commissioner’s son is kidnapped by a group of criminals led by “The Chaffeur” (Edward Norton).
I suppose I’ll get my biggest gripe about The French Dispatch out of the way so I can get to the good that is absolutely there. The structure of this film, confined to a 103-minute film, feels as if it would thrive as a six-episode HBO mini-series which would give each of these stories a bit more room to breathe, as well as possibly expanding upon the world of Ennui that feels a bit truncated to the first five minutes. Nothing else has to change about its style, writing, directing, etc. There is just a better paced story to be found elsewhere that would’ve felt a bit more complete in another medium of the craft.
This doesn’t really help when the story and dialogue of The French Dispatch moves insanely fast at times, often losing entire performances of big-name actors in the process if you blink at the wrong time, and god forbid you have to use the bathroom anytime during the film, you’re screwed. Still, that trademark quick wit that comes through in the best of Anderson’s work is there, and it’s more welcome than ever in a world of superhero fatigue and bland blockbusters, the assured consistency of Anderson is all the more welcome, and truly all the more singular.
With such an insanely large cast, it’s easy to lose many performances when so many are simply glorified cameos with barely any lines, but there are a few standouts here, particularly those of Frances McDormand, Benicio del Toro, Timothée Chalamet (see guys, I can like him!), Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, and Jeffrey Wright, which coincidentally are the actors with the most screen time and dialogue in the film. Sometimes I wish Anderson would pull back just a little bit on the massive ensemble casts because it makes it incredibly easy to lose talented actors in throwaway roles simply because you can. I love seeing actors whom I love having fun with a really creative director, I just don’t like to see them wasted.
Is this perhaps one of the slighter films in Anderson’s filmography? Absolutely. This doesn’t quite have the staying power that something like The Grand Budapest Hotel has, for example, despite exhibiting the same style at its core (The French Dispatch and The Grand Budapest Hotel are siblings in visual style, certainly). Still, it’s hard to not be delighted by the upbeat, quirky nature of Anderson’s directing style, which has been often imitated, but never replicated. If that’s not your thing, The French Dispatch offers nothing new in the way of Anderson changing or evolving as a filmmaker too much, but is that something we really need? If you’ve found your stride, then stride.
In select theaters October 22nd, 2021.
Screened during the 2021 Film Fest 919.
For more information, head to Searchlight Pictures’s official The French Dispatch website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.