The French Dispatch Review
December 2, 2021
Wes Anderson is one of those directors that has such a consistent and striking style that you can determine if a film is his just in a few seconds. The French Dispatch does not break this trend and is such a pure distillation of his style and philosophy of filmmaking that it’s likely to alienate anyone who isn’t already a big fan. Even if you are a fan, the structure and core conceit of the film are unlike anything he’s done before – for better or worse.
The French Dispatch is an anthology film made up of multiple vignettes representing articles of the final issue of a fictional magazine following the death of its editor, played by Bill Murray. While this format initially seems like a perfect fit for an Anderson film, as a variety of stories can keep his quirkiness fresh, it quickly gets boring.
The main culprit in question is the horrible pacing. While the first story, a simple tour of the French town Ennui-sur-Blasé, is short and sweet, the three subsequent stories are each anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes long. On the surface, this isn’t an issue, but none of the stories are engaging enough to warrant their runtimes. The worst offender is the third story – a student revolution on the streets of France. All characters speak in Anderson’s standard deadpan style, but whereas the other stories have enjoyable dialogue and characterizations, this one does not. After about five minutes, the quirky style becomes grating and unbearable where you just want the film to be over. Even the other stories have this problem. For such a short film made up of short films, this should not be the case.
The writing is another big issue. For a film described by the director as a “love letter to journalists,” it’s exactly what you would expect – bloated, “intellectual,” and self-absorbed. It should be witty and vibrant, but it’s more eye-rolling than anything else. It feels written for a very particular kind of audience that does not include most people. Unlike previous films of Anderson’s, such as Fantastic Mr. Fox, there’s nothing of interest for most people. The characters are lame, the stories are largely predictable or boring, and the writing is frustrating to listen to. So, what does the film actually do right?
Stylistically, this is easily one of Anderson’s greatest achievements. The sets and costumes are colorful and full of life and detail. The framing of shots is usually very clever, with many feeling like they’re right out of a classic comic strip like Tintin. In fact, the final vignette actually features a brilliant cartoon sequence mimicking the style of magazine illustrations. The editing is also distinguished, with a number of funny jokes delivered simply through cutting from one shot to another. This really is Wes Anderson’s style to the max. If you enjoy “the art of film,” you’ll find plenty to appreciate here.
As is typical of a Wes Anderson film, the cast is outstanding. Just to name a few: Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Timothée Chalamet, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, and many more. Many of these actors are also only in the film for a scene or two, which makes the already large cast seem even bigger as famous faces pop up one after another. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, most of the cast acts in the exact same way with the aforementioned deadpan delivery that Anderson likes. Of course, this does mean that when someone doesn’t act in that way, they stand out and succeed even more. Adrien Brody and Christoph Walz both accomplish this and deliver some memorable performances, even if the latter only has a small amount of screen time.
If you’re not a fan of Anderson already, The French Dispatch is unlikely to change your mind. Prior films of his, such as the The Royal Tenenbaums work so well because the characters are interesting, and the plots are engaging and original. There’s very little here that is particularly memorable, which is disappointing for such an accomplished director. Regrettably, this is one theater-exclusive film that you can afford to miss unless you’re already a mega-fan of Anderson.