When I arrived at the theater on opening night to see Wes Anderson’s latest creation, "The French Dispatch," an attendant handed me a typewriter lapel pin and a twenty-question survey to complete after the end of the movie. It clearly shows that Twentieth Century Fox and Searchlight Pictures have invested heavily in this production. And I think that’s where we have arrived in the extravagant, creative, extensive world of Wes Anderson—completely mainstream. With "The French Dispatch", UMass Boston students will enjoy Anderson’s latest creation, but probably not love it.
“The French Dispatch” is a magazine based out of the fictional town of Ennui, France, and is a weekly addition to The Liberty Kansas Evening Sun newspaper, a daily publication in the United States. Magazine founder Arthur Howitzer Jr., played by Bill Murray, dies at the beginning of the story and asks in his will that the publication ceases after one final edition. The film is structured as three evenly divided segments, representing the three articles that appear in the magazine, along with a brief lifestyle report at the beginning of the magazine from Herbsaint Sazerac, played by Owen Wilson, on the comings and goings of the tiny town of Ennui. These three stories have no overlap and are only connected through the knowledge that the three are recounted by separate reporters for the same magazine.
The first article, which focuses on an unlikely art hero and a greedy fellow inmate, is reported by J.K.L. Berensen, played by Tilda Swinton. She recounts the report to a live audience as a lecture. The movie quickly transitions to the past, shown in black and white, where artistic genius and convicted killer Moses Rosenthaler, played by Benicio del Toro, is working on his magnum opus behind bars. His muse is Simone, played by Léa Seydoux, a prison guard and Rosenthaler’s lover. Julien Cadazio, played by Adrien Brody, is a wealthy tax-evader who wishes to buy all Rosenthaler’s paintings for his own profit. A fight about possession, wealth and depression unfolds.
The second article is about the “chessboard revolution”, led by a young college student and pseudo-intellectual, Zeffirelli, played by Timothée Chalamet, who inspires protests against the local Ennui government. The young college students are fighting a ban on male access to the women’s dormitories imposed by the college, which is supported by the Ennui government. French Dispatch reporter Lucinda Krementz, played by Frances McDormand, follows the events closely for her report, and forgoes her journalistic neutrality by becoming romantically involved with the much younger Zeffirelli. The best quotation of the movie goes to Krementz, who resolutely says, “I prefer relationships that end.”
In the third and final article, standout performer Jeffrey Wright plays reporter Roebuck Wright, a food critic who recounts his experiences in a television interview. Again, in the black and white past, Wright is invited to taste the food of Nescaffie, played by Stephen Park, a police lieutenant and personal chef to the police Commissaire. The stern Commissaire, played by Mathieu Amalric, is warming up to Wright while eating Nescaffie’s food, when suddenly, the Commissaire is alerted to the kidnapping of his son and heir apparent to the Commissaire position. A standoff and subsequent animated chase scene follows.
The most impactful moment from "The French Dispatch" is when Wright is interrupted by the television interviewer during Wright’s recollection of the car chase. He is asked a poignant question: “Why critique food?” Wright reveals his deep loneliness and delivers a monologue worthy of contemplation, intrigue, and for Jeffrey Wright, an Oscar nod for best supporting actor. It is unfortunate that it takes nearly an hour and a half to get to a satisfying climax in a movie, which splices three thirty-minute stories completely separate from each other. It is a bold concept for Wes Anderson that doesn’t quite hit the mark and may have been better served as a three-episode miniseries.
There are still the quirky sets, eccentric vespa-riding heroes, witty one-liners and a bicycle with a special holder for a handheld notebook. We still get a gloriously funny animated chase scene, Bill Murray scowling with sadness and humor, slow motion romance with hair bouncing in the wind, and a rooftop pirate radio station that we all know isn’t what a pirate radio station looks like. We still see a cross section of a building, oddly placed colorful subtitles, a prison riot that makes us laugh, and a French waiter who uses a rope dumbwaiter. However, what we don’t get enough of from Anderson in "The French Dispatch" are the moments that touch our souls deeply and profoundly.
The three-segment format never allows for the deeper emotional connections that mature over the course of a few hours in other Anderson films. UMass Boston fans of Wes Anderson can remember the despicable pair of Max Fischer, played by Jason Schwartzman, and Herman Blume, played by Bill Murray, in Anderson’s "Rushmore" who made us cry because we saw a little bit of them in ourselves. M. Gustave, played by Ralph Fiennes, in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" gave us shining faith in humanity while the world around us seems increasingly dim. In "The French Dispatch", there aren’t enough of the gratifying emotional moments that any Oscar-worthy drama would feature throughout. The primary culprit of this is the overstuffed and rushed nature of the three-segment format.
"The French Dispatch" is filled with questionable sexualization of almost every female character. There are casual and academic arguments to be made about the artistic integrity and value of such moves. A strong, independent female character should not be shamed by the audience for her sexual exploits or for her body. However, it felt excessive at moments and there seemed to be an obvious double standard. Chalamet’s character is the only one out of the male cast to show partial nudity. The undoubtable disappointment is the ever-controversial lack of racial diversity succinct with Anderson’s films over the years. Hopefully, Anderson takes the pleas of diversity from moviegoers in future projects.
The movie is an artful ode to journalists and critics, French cinema and admirable storytellers. If you want to see a cast of everyone under the sun, from Saoirse Ronan to Henry Winkler, go see this movie. If you want quite possibly the funniest Wes Anderson movie ever made, go see this movie. It is thoroughly enjoyable and keeps the viewer engaged through three well written and superbly acted stories. It is an extravaganza of celebrity and carefully crafted tools of Wes Anderson. But when UMass Boston students walk out of the theater, they probably won’t have seen his greatest film. It does not provide moviegoers with emotional satisfaction but it does deliver on splendid entertainment value. It is definitely worth a watch.