Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 31, 2022)
When we last saw Wes Anderson, he directed an animated tale, 2018’s Isle of Dogs. With 2021’s The French Dispatch, Anderson returns to live-action material for the first time since 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray) acts as the publisher of a magazine called The French Dispatch. When he dies suddenly, the remaining staff puts together a farewell issue.
Per Arthur’s wishes, this final release reuses favorite articles from prior printings as well as a look at the town from which the periodical emanates. These include “The Cycling Reporter”, “The Concrete Masterpiece”, “Revisions to a Manifesto” and “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner”, all of which come to life on screen.
25 years and 10 feature films into his career, Anderson has created a firm image that he shows no desire to shake. Whereas some directors might attempt to broaden their horizons and create movies with some variety, Anderson seems content to stay in his wheelhouse.
Superficially, Anderson actually takes on a wide range of topics and genres. However, he bludgeons each and every one of these into “Wes Anderson Movie” territory, so no matter what subject matter he approaches, a substantial sense of sameness results.
Anderson’s dedicated cult likely regards this as a good thing. I suspect Anderson’s insular refusal to expand past his signature whimsical style limits his overall appeal, but he probably doesn’t care.
While I respect Anderson’s refusal to “sell out”, I really wish he’d stretch his legs, especially because he appears to go further down the “Wes Anderson Movie” rabbit hole with each new film.
Dispatch does expand Anderson’s horizons in one way, as I believe it offers his first anthology. While his other efforts follow actual “main characters” and a central plot, this one splits into a series of vignettes.
That approach might work if Anderson found much of actual interest to explore here. However, even though none of the various stories fills a lot of space, all feel underdrawn and overwritten.
Oh boy, does Anderson lather on florid prose here! Granted, some of this makes sense since the movie revolves around articles in a magazine, but nonetheless, the stilted, chronically “scripted” nature of the dialogue becomes a drag.
Anderson seems in love with his own quirky talents and indulges himself to the nth degree. Again, most who go into an Anderson movie will understand – and expect – this, so they won’t mind the artificial nature of the dialogue.
Nonetheless, it gets old – for me, at least – and the hollow nature of the individual vignettes doesn’t help. Most run far too long and run out of steam well before they mercifully conclude.
While these elements account for the standard Wes Anderson Movie weaknesses, Dispatch also comes with the standard Wes Anderson Movie positives. As always, the film looks great.
While Anderson’s whimsical sensibility can become oppressive, I can’t deny that he forms stylistically intriguing movies that pay off with intricate and appealing visuals. Dispatch provides a production designer’s dream.
In addition, Anderson gathers his usual assortment of top-notch actors. Indeed, the anthology format means Dispatch features his strongest roster to date, as in addition to Murray, we find Frances McDormand, Benecio Del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Timothée Chalamet, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton and others.
Inevitably, however, all find themselves forced to act in the Wes Anderson Style. This means mostly deadpan performances without a hint of naturalism, as all favor Anderson’s preferred tone of theatricality.
All of this cycles back to a basic summary: if you like Wes Anderson movies, you’ll enjoy The French Dispatch, and if you don’t, you won’t. The film seems wholly unlikely to convert anyone new to the Anderson cause.
Credits footnote: I believe Anderson’s “real title” for the film is The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. However, this seems to get shortened to simply The French Dispatch everywhere, so I opted to follow that convention.