Visual anthologies are hit or miss. There is, undoubtedly, going to be a segment that doesn’t work as well. It will feel bulky or slower. Rare it may be to find much balance; The French Dispatch at least tries to. Director Wes Anderson’s collection of fictional works of great journalism are the ensemble-heavy notes of love to the boundary-pushing journalists at the heart of great stories. Anderson’s sickly, Mr. Kipling French-Fancy variation of colour, technique and cinematography is abruptly halted. His stylistic dependency is changed. Most surprising of all for The French Dispatch is its reliance on drab tones. Black and white cinematography is the common treatment for these three stories. Reflect on the past, the simplicity of the times. That is the point, but in practice, it makes this latest feature from the distinct visual creator a bit run of the mill.
With so many names, stories and details, it is impossible for The French Dispatch to familiarise itself with the great moments. What it does share with all these stories though is a focus on the beauty of journalism and the documentarian style. They are the great crusaders of a new wave of information, documenting details that would otherwise slip through the cracks of grand moments in history. They profile the damned, pick apart the revolutions of the new generation and lambast art for the folly and frustration it can provide. It is the ode to journalism that The French Dispatch clicks so well with. The go-getting, pencil-pushing brilliance of a feature article spiralling from its original angle into something bigger, a biting story turned into a creatively exhausting and rewarding experience.
But the death of print journalism tolls for Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), editor of the eponymous paper. It does for us all. All those working in the industry, all those on the outside consuming it. That crushing reality The French Dispatch provides is that good journalism, interesting stories and fine craftsmen are nothing at all if they are not financially rewarding. Three stories house great performances, but that should be no surprise. Frances McDormand, Jeffrey Wright and Tilda Swinton commandeer these narratives effectively and vibrantly. There is enough variation between the spiel and discourse to warrant three different avenues. Owen Wilson struggles with his four-minute introduction. It feels like a test of the waters, either way, audiences will drown in the thick waters of French love.
As great a commitment as it is, The French Dispatch is lacking that honed craftsmanship. Its premise is grand, its Jarvis Cocker-clad soundtrack is delightful (if a bit heavy on the record scratch moments) and the cast knows their place. Perhaps that is the issue. These cast members and crew hands know their place. They know which cog turns which wheel. It is undeniably fun, and there are more than a few moments of artistically inspired fun to this latest Anderson feature, but where is the true innovation? The French Dispatch blurs the line between self-parody of the heavy-set, vibrant ensemble of The Grand Budapest Hotel yet also manages to cram in some delicate choreography, animated segments and moments of truly inspired detail. Unique and ever-changing details fall around an essential core that never changes. Is that not journalism? Is that not what Anderson wants to depict here, with The French Dispatch?