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'The French Dispatch' is an absolute delight and plainly brilliant

Wes Anderson is maybe at the point where he can do anything and everything he wants, and Exhibit A is The French Dispatch, a movie he’s explicitly said he just wanted to fit as much fun stuff into as he could. And if that results in a film that’s close to overwhelming at times, it’s also an absolute delight and plainly brilliant.

The French Dispatch is what’s sometimes referred to as a “portmanteau film,” a movie that’s made up of separate short stories rather than one long narrative arc. In this case it comes to us in the form of magazine articles written for The New Yorker-inspired “French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun,” an insert in the fictional newspaper of that small town. The magazine was started by Arthur Howitzer, Jr., played by Bill Murray, who visited France and stayed, sending back dispatches from the town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, one of a zillion cute jokes that works precisely because Anderson knows just what kind of joke it is. Howitzer employs other writers along the way, leading to an enormous circulation and renown for his magazine. He then dies at the beginning of the film, resulting in the construction of one final issue, which is what we see.

Anderson really does throw everything at the wall, although much of the movie is heavily influenced by French culture and filmmaking, inspired by early Renoir films, the French New Wave, policiers, travelogues, and even one animated sequence created as a nod to the town they actually made the film in, considered the “cartoon capital of France.” He whips from black-and-white shots to color, jumps from a square frame to widescreen, plays with subtitles and split-screens, and his characters deliver their dialogue with breakneck speed. All of this within his hyper-controlled, hyper-stylized production design, into which he crams many, many visual gags, some of which harken back to Jacques Tati, some of which are more slapstick, and a ton of which I’m sure I missed. This is a movie that will need multiple viewings, and is probably designed to require them.

Some people have complained this film doesn’t have the emotional resonance of some of Anderson’s other work, although I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem, there’s no reason we can’t just have fun for fun’s sake, and besides, that makes me feel like they somehow didn’t notice Jeffrey Wright’s gorgeous performance as a deeply thoughtful, James Baldwin-esque food writer.

One of the advantages of a portmanteau film is that if you don’t like one part, another is coming shortly, although with this movie, if you don’t like something, you might just look in a different part of the frame. The French Dispatch succeeds so wonderfully because Wes Anderson gives it so many opportunities—for once, at least, more is more.

The French Dispatch is in theaters.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.