By this point, the average viewer should know whether or not to bother with Wes Anderson’s comedy, The French Dispatch, based purely upon the pedigree of his other movies. Anderson’s signature style is always a major selling point (or, if you’re one of his detractors, a big red flag) that makes any of his films an obvious mark of the director himself. For the creator’s first since 2018’s masterful stop-motion animated Isle of Dogs, a literary magazine clearly inspired by The New Yorker is the primary focus. The founder of the magazine titled The French Dispatch, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), has passed away and leaves very specific instructions: his obituary will also serve as the obituary of the publication. Howitzer is celebrated through three distinct stories that helped to define The French Dispatch. Each tale heads to a fictional version of a 1960s French city called Ennsui-sur-Blase for an anthology-driven love letter to journalism. This format allows Anderson to reunite with a familiar troupe of actors he has worked with before, in addition to showcasing hot rising talent to fill out his eclectic roster of personalities.
The wraparound segment is narrated by Anderson mainstay Anjelica Huston, and is punctuated by Bill Murray’s wry humor. Howitzer has a “no crying” policy in his office, and the camera pans up to a sign which literally reads as such when he dismisses someone. His best piece of advice is to “try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.” His life’s mission was to “bring the world to Kansas,” and that is exactly what Howitzer managed to do. His carefully-curated staff of writers (including one who pops up from time to time that simply walks around observing yet writes nothing) are fiercely loyal to Howitzer despite his less-than-desirable coarse attitude. It is a character that feels written specifically for Murray’s sensibilities as an actor.
The first story (in the Arts & Artists section of the magazine) is titled “The Concrete Masterpiece” and might be my favorite of the three. Tilda Swinton’s J.K.L. Berensen holds a lecture about renowned artist-slash-prisoner Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). The origins of the criminal (who decapitated two bartenders with a meat saw, the first of which was “an accident”) are recounted in vivid detail. Berensen’s slideshow presentation is nearly as entertaining as the story itself: at one point, she derails her talk to pour a glass of wine, while at another interval she accidentally shows the wrong slide featuring herself in the nude. Rosenthaler’s artistic journey is equally quirky. Drinking mouthwash rations and desperate to “paint the future,” Rosenthaler’s inspiration comes in the form of his muse, Simone (Lea Seydoux), a prison guard. The culmination of this tale leads to a satisfying over-the-top conclusion.
The magazine’s Politics & Poetry segment, “Revisions of a Manifesto,” is delightfully strange. Narration duties shift to writer Lucina (Frances McDormand) as she observes the ‘youth in revolt’ late-60s politics of the younger generation. Lucinda infiltrates their world through the Chessboard Revolution sparked by young intellectual, Zeffirelli (Timothee Chalamet, sporting the craziest hairdo I have seen from him thus far). She begins sleeping with the significantly younger man, whilst proofreading his manifesto as the streets teem with protests and tear gas. McDormand and Chalamet are incredible together—their first scene, where Lucinda walks in on Zeffirelli in the tub, is hilarious. “Please go away, I feel shy about my new muscles,” he pleads.
The final story, for Tastes & Smells, is Jeffrey Wright starring “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner.” This is perhaps the weakest of the three, but I still had a good time with it. It seems at first as if this will be the most straightforward of the bunch, but clearly I was underestimating what was about to unfold. What starts as a simple dinner party devolves into madness when The Chauffeur (Edward Norton) and his goons secretly kidnap the son of The Commissaire (Mathieu Amalric). The child is more clever than he appears, having the shocking and hilarious background of growing up around law enforcement—his first words were in morse code, and his first drawing was of a criminal’s composite sketch. The fantastical elements explode during a creative car chase, though the ultimate ending felt like it was missing something. Still, even the weakest story of the bunch is finely crafted and laugh-out-loud funny. Where else can you hear Jeffrey Wright spouting dialogue like “a weakness in cartography—the curse of the homosexual.”
If I had to compare The French Dispatch to another Wes Anderson film, it would probably be The Grand Budapest Hotel. The framing of every scene, the specificity in the dialogue, and oddball humor are all here, and fit the movie like a glove. Celebrity cameos ranging from Saoirse Ronan to Christoph Waltz to Owen Wilson and everyone else in between are littered throughout in a way that highlights each of them at least once. My favorite semi-cameo came from Lois Smith, who portrays voracious collector Ma Clampette. I love that the seasoned director is never afraid of playing in the stylistic sandbox, fluctuating between aspect ratios, black-and-white cinematography, 2D animation, uniquely edited action sequences, and even playful use of subtitles. As with every other film in Anderson’s filmography, I can imagine repeat viewings will only strengthen The French Dispatch. The intricate detail and madcap unfurling fast-paced flow of the stories is sure to reward the attentive viewer. Whatever whimsical delights are next in store from Wes Anderson remains to be seen, but regardless, I cannot wait to see where he travels next.
The French Dispatch releases its final issue when it heads to theaters on Friday, October 22nd.