The French Dispatch (of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun) | 2021 | rated R | starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Adrian Brody, Benicio Del Toro, Lea, Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothee Chalamet, Jeffrey Wright | directed by Wes Anderson | 1 hr 46 mins |
For the past several decades creator/editor Arthur Horwitzer (Bill Murray) has turned a love for the written word into a small journalistic paper in Liberty, Kansas, where he shepherds a group of loyal journalists reporting on the unique, bizarre and colorful happenings of the small (fictional) French town of Ennui. On this day we’re told three stories from the Dispatch’s history. One (reported by Tilda Swinton) tells the story of an incarcerated artist (Benicio Del Toro), his muse and lover (Lea Seydoux) and the art collector (Adrian Brody) trying to turn his expressionist works into the next big thing. Another (reported by Frances McDormand), tells the story of a prep school gender war that evolves into a town revolt and the young author/chess player (Timothee Chalamet) who drafts their demands. The third and final story (reported by Jeffrey Wright) concerns the reporter’s meeting with a world renound chef, the dinner being interrupted by a kidnapping of the host’s young son.
The French Dispatch is not just an anthology film. It’s a Wes Anderson movie without a safety net. If you were someone who could do without Anderson’s quirky theatrics but enjoyed the first love stories of Rushmore or Moonrise Kingdom, the dysfunctional family dynamic of The Royal Tenenbaums or the caper of The Grand Budapest Hotel this movie isn’t for your. French Dispatch has no handrail of a story, or a human connection, to guide the audience through. It is just pure unadulterated Wes Anderson quirk for the sake of quirk, wadded up into a single solid ball and unfurled back on us. I mostly enjoyed the heck out of it, because Anderson is just so damn good at telling these stories.
Even in the short time span given to each of the 3 stories here (plus one introduction by Owen Wilson to the town itself to build the world and set the mood), Anderson crafts rich characters with full histories and satisfying arcs and weaves them through his creation of another character, Ennui itself. The screenplay is a dense one. Cramming in a Thesaurus’s worth of unique descriptions at a lightening fast pace. Anderson is one of the few filmmakers working today that can delivers both vulgar and un-PC with such a poetic flourish that it flies over the head of anyone who might find such things offensive.
The French Dispatch is both the most epic and theatrical film Anderson has put together so far. Spanning decades and time periods with a massive cast of his usual players (everyone from Jason Schwartzman to Edward Norton to Willem Defoe to Henry Winkler make appearances). It also looks like Anderson has built little sets for every single sequence, shot wide, with the camera trucking side to side taking in all the activity bustling about in front of us. He mixes mediums, switching back and forth between color and black and white, sometimes in the same scene. When the action exceeds his budget, the film switches to animation. It’s eye-opening, refreshing in a time of hyper-editing and feels like something Jacques Tati would heartily approve of.
I’m not typically a fan of anthology movies. The way they stop and start as each story ends and a new one begins puts a break on the pace that pulls us out of the film. French Dispatch doesn’t overcome those inherent problems with this style, though the sheer speed that Anderson moves through things and visually sign-posts how many stories were going to see is helpful. I enjoyed this movie. While it isn’t a knockout, it is a fun, funny, piece of pure unadulterated Anderson and if any filmmaker has earned the right to break the rules and make something this wonderfully indulgent, it’s Wes Anderson.