It sometimes helps, when writing film reviews, to let readers know from the start what sort of person you are, what kind of biases you bring to the table. Often it won’t, or shouldn’t matter, but sometimes it feels too screamingly foregrounded to ignore. So it is for me in regards to The French Dispatch.
The French Dispatch Posts a Love Letter to the Literary Magazine
In that spirit, allow me to confess I was the kind of child who would, when visiting my grandparents, immediately seek out their numerous back issues of the New Yorker to flip through. I was single digits years old, so it was mainly about the cartoons, but I recall the New Yorker was also where I first read about the Presidential candidacy of Jesse Jackson. So if you’re wondering if I might be the kind of person interested in a Wes Anderson movie about a New Yorker-esque publication, well, it is entirely possible I was genetically engineered for that specific purpose. Do feel free to let that inform how many grains of salt you’d like to take with this review.
According to the film’s lore, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) created the French Dispatch while abroad. Arthur started the Sunday supplement for the Kansas paper his father owned, being written, edited, and assembled from Ennui (yes, I know), France. Arthur fell so in love with the project and the place, he never returned home. However, Arthur has died and his will calls for the disillusion of the magazine in a precise manner. Arthur, it seems, has more than a touch of Anderson to him.
Dispatch, the film, thus concerns the story of the final issue. However, it is not largely about the making of the last issue, but rather a review of the stories contained within. It is, essentially, an anthology picture divided into four separate sections surrounded by organizing bookends. Throughout each section, Arthur flits through, an almost spectral figure in his own magazine even while he walked amongst the living.
While discussing another Anderson film, the podcast This Had Oscar Buzz raised the point that The Royal Tenenbaums feels like a sendoff to Gene Hackman’s career, in retrospect. Yes, he did go on to make three more films in the next three years before officially retiring—including The Runaway Jury which he is legit excellent in—but Tenenbaums feels like the best use of all he could do. Dispatch, in a very different way, has a similar quality for Murray.
As far as I know, the actor is physically fine and has no particular intentions of retiring. Also, given his reputation, the gentle Arthur doesn’t much resemble the sometimes combative Murray. Arthur is a figure of quiet support, while Murray is typically perceived as more as a sort of latter-day trickster spirit. And yet, the film is shot through with a sense of tribute, of farewell. Murray is on-screen little and says even less, but his presence fills the frame.
He’s not alone in delivering against-type performances that linger. Benicio Del Toro, as imprisoned artist Moses Rosenthaler, has never felt so small or sweet. It’s an irony as he appears broad on-screen, usually dwarfing his co-stars, and is in prison for brutal multiple homicides. Still, there it is. His fumbling confession in front of a group of silent unexpressive fellow inmates that he needs art again because, if not, he will surely kill himself, is a standout.
I could spend the following several paragraphs describing other performances worth recalling, such as Jeffrey Wright’s Roebuck Wright. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to do so, but it would add considerably to the word count of this review. Besides, there’s much I think you’d be better discovering on your own than reading my painstaking reconstruction.
Instead, I’ll explain that The French Dispatch is a fragile thing, the kind of film that feels as though it might break if you watch it too often or too closely. For those who criticize Anderson’s dollhouse-like meticulousness, there will be plenty here to gall. This is easily his most “artificial” film since The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. However, it also feels like his most vulnerable in some time. His craft never hides or eliminates the exposed beating heart beneath it.
Moreover, that doesn’t feel accidental. It doesn’t seem as though Anderson set out to create this film as a piece of sterile perfection. Instead, it feels like the writer-director is sharing with the audience in the best way that he knows how. The style isn’t a barrier here. It is a vehicle of reflection, of confession.
It’s arch; it’s silly; it’s 100% manufactured from a visual standpoint. It can’t resist a groaner—goodness, Ennui, France—and it unfolds in a world so separate from our existence it might as well be Narnia. However, the humanity of the piece is honest and real. Weirdly, it makes perfect sense that Wes Anderson at his most meticulous is also him at his most naked.
Tim Steven is a sad tomato, Tim Stevens is three miles of bad road. He’s also a therapist, staff writer and social media manager for The Spool, and a freelance writer with publications like ComicsVerse, Marvel.com, CC Magazine, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. Feel free to find him @UnGajje on Twitter or in a realm of pure imagination.