I was still uninitiated, a sophomore in college, when I found my friend reading a copy of The New Yorker while he sat at his dining hall job, swiping student IDs. “You really like that, huh?” I asked skeptically about the magazine, which had only recently begun printing any pages in color.
“It’s the only magazine that runs stories long enough,” he said.
It takes a certain type of filmmaker to be drawn to that style of luxurious journalistic storytelling, where the writer often enters the story as a character and an unseen editor looms large. In Adaptation (2002), Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman made hay with The Orchid Thief, a Susan Orlean book that started as a story in The New Yorker. Now, Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch arrives as a less mind-bending, but more affectionate, tribute to the eccentric but brilliant 20th century writers end editors whose names are cited as dedicatees.
The French Dispatch has been called “alienating” and “self-indulgent,” but those critiques miss the point of this love letter to the kind of enterprise helmed by Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray), who will cut an ad before he cuts a story and edits as much by addition as subtraction. Self-indulgent the film may be, but it’s also self-aware about the niche audience for this kind of material: the eponymous publication, a supplement to the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun, is portrayed as having fewer readers than staffers. Certainly, if you’re walking into a Wes Anderson movie in 2021, you should know what you’re getting just as surely as someone cracking The New Yorker in 1971.
The film dramatizes a series of stories from the publication’s final issue, which remains precisely outlined on a bulletin board in the office of the late Howitzer (don’t worry, there are flashbacks). Among them are a travelogue by Herbsaint Sazerac (an accident-prone Owen Wilson); a biography of a brilliant but incarcerated artist (Benicio del Toro) and his prison guard muse (a wonderfully dry Léa Seydoux), by a colorful art critic (Tilda Swinton) who likes to spike her slideshows with “accidental” shots of herself in life-model mode; a chronicle of a youthful revolt led by Lyna Khoudri and Timothée Chalamet, who enthusiastically beds journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) even as she tries to remain “impartial”; and a story by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), ostensibly about food but truly a crime caper.
There’s a whole generation of Wes Anderson viewers who fell in love with The Royal Tenenbaums but haven’t really connected with much that he’s done since. I’m most partial to his mid-filmography (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Moonrise Kingdom), but I appreciate the purity of a project like The French Dispatch, which turns style into substance.
The poignant heart of the 52-year-old moviemaker’s work is the sense that his characters embrace a rigid eccentricity as a means of exerting some sort of control over an existence where true human connection remains mysterious, elusive, and often mundane. Here’s art dealer Julien Cadazio (Adrien Brody), trying to squeeze a masterpiece out of a murder. (He succeeds, but there’s a very important asterisk.) Here are Juliette (Khoudri, an Algerian actor who’s a revelation) and Zeffirelli (Chalamet), quibbling over the appendices of their manifesto when all they really need — as Lucinda points out — is each other. Here’s Roebuck Wright, who describes his interest in food writing in a brief but moving monologue about loneliness.
Deeper themes aside, The French Dispatch is a glorious Anderson-esque confection. The film has the filmmaker’s most overstuffed cast yet, with the likes of Jason Schwartzman and Henry Winkler in roles that you may almost miss if you blink. Seydoux (No Time To Die) and Chalamet (Dune) are crossing over to this extremely indie aesthetic from two of the season’s biggest blockbusters; the only unpleasant association that evokes is with an earlier era when the crossover film would have been by Woody Allen, and would have had everyone in the cast trying to act like Woody Allen.
If you’re undecided about whether to renew your Wes Anderson subscription, The French Dispatch may not be the offer you’re looking for — but then, Harold Ross never concerned himself with tote bags.