Moviegoer: The French Dispatch

(From L-R): Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Fisher Stevens and Griffin Dunne in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Wes Anderson’s tribute to journalism could have used a copy editor

By Diana Beechener

Afraid of getting stuck at his family’s newspaper in Kansas, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray: On the Rocks) flees to France and founds a publication of his own: The French Dispatch. His paper is filled with long form stories about the people and places that inspire him. His goal was to bring a bit of the world and foreign culture to his hometown, but the Dispatch grew to become a haven for writers, oddballs, and those in need of beauty in a dark world.

         Upon Howitzer’s death, though, the magazine is set to stop publishing. So the final issue of The French Dispatch features four of its best stories and a heartfelt obituary written by the entire staff.

What treasures will be found in the final pages of the magazine? Honestly, it’s a mixed bag.

         A clear tribute to the beautiful writing and the unique personalities that made The New Yorker one of the bastions of journalism, The French Dispatch is a funny, wry film. Anyone who’s ever worked in journalism will find plenty to smile at (especially the idea of an editor who won’t cut a piece to fit the space allotted) in this loving omnibus of stories.

         Wes Anderson has made a long, successful career creating erudite nonsense for people who like to feel clever. Anyone buying a ticket to his films knows they’ll see meticulously curated dioramas of retro objects, pastel ‘60s color palettes, and absurdly wordy dialogue. Anderson doesn’t break from the formula here, he leans into it. Instead of one quirky film filled with quirky objects, he’s managed an anthology filled with stories similar to the fare you’d find in The New Yorker.  

         The problem with the French Dispatch is that it’s rare to read a whole issue of The New Yorker in one sitting. And Anderson’s tribute is uneven and long as a result. The format might have worked better as a series—with each segment taking up an episode. As it stands, French Dispatch might be an ideal candidate for a streaming service, where you can pause it, take a break, make a snack, and stretch.

         The film feels stuffed. Famous Oscar-nominated actors like Willem Dafoe and Saoirse Ronan show up to deliver one line and disappear. The usual fast-paced dialogue and text-filled graphics overwhelm—there’s no way to catch all the information being thrown at you on a first viewing. And worst of all, the scene-setting segment with Owen Wilson feels like a total waste of screen time that could have been given to develop some of the other stories.

         Still, all the news that’s fit to print isn’t all bleak. Two of the stories are gorgeous, funny little slices of life. Benicio Del Toro (No Sudden Move) and Jeffrey Wright (Marvel’s What If…?) are standouts in the story, Del Toro as a sensitive, psychotic artist and Wright as a James Baldwin-esque food writer. Their tales are both funny and touching, and would have probably made fine feature length films.

         The French Dispatch also features some of Anderson’s most creative set pieces. Sets switch theatrically, immersing viewers in a new environment. Anderson has always been a master of aesthetics and he’s clearly having fun working on four stories with differing styles. The specificity of Anderson’s work is always his best asset as a filmmaker.

         If you’re a fan of Anderson’s oeuvre, The French Dispatch is a brightly decorated intellectual quirk for you to enjoy. If you find Anderson’s works to be a bit too cutesy, this film will likely not dispel you of that idea. In spite of its flaws, this reviewer found The French Dispatch a meticulously curated tribute to those who spend their lives discovering stories to share with others.

Fair Dramedy * R * 108 mins.