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Dad’s night out at “The French Dispatch”

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(Courtesy Photo/IMDb)

By Joseph Poulos

Ask any overworked parent what their ideal night consists of, and you might get some varied answers. For me, a night out alone at the movies is all I need to recharge my batteries.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife and I made it to the movies once a week. We were ticket club holders at AMC Theaters, which allowed us to earn points and rewards towards free items and ticket discounts with each movie we saw. We made it our duty to see new movies first. After the show, we would discuss the content of the film.

My son was born on May 9, 2020. He came into this world in what was perhaps one of the weirdest moments in history. If a global pandemic and movie theater shutdown weren’t enough to keep me away from new films, a beautiful infant surely was.

Recently, I finally got to go back to the movies for the first time since February 2020. While lots of films were playing, the choice was simple. Renowned director/screenwriter and auteur Wes Anderson released his latest film “The French Dispatch” on Oct. 22, 2021. I had a ticket to the show –  my first night out alone as a young father.

I had long been a fan of Anderson. “The Royal Tenenbaums” was the first film of his I saw, and it introduced me to the beautiful music of Elliot Smith. Anderson is known for his nostalgic films, which are peppered with larger than life characters, situational humor, and beautiful set designs and color palettes.

His latest film is no exception. Anderson uses his knowledge of the creative world as a vehicle to show us a beautiful story of what it was like to be a journalist in Paris, France in the postwar years.

When I got to the theatre, I felt self-conscious. Was I the only one here alone? While people social-distanced themselves in lines, I did my best to blend in and seem a part of some inclusive pack. When I got to the register, I asked for a medium popcorn. This was an expensive purchase ($7), one I granted myself in the spirit of celebration for my night of freedom. 

I ordered a Coke slushie ($6.79), to go with it and made my way to the theater. The dark room had a familiar smell, something like carpet and popcorn mixed together. When the lights dimmed and the projector whirred behind the audience’s heads, I knew I was in for a treat. 

The movie is separated into loosely connected vignettes, some of which connect to the previous ones, and all of which feature big name actors and Anderson’s regulars. Icons like Bill Murray and Owen Wilson headline the film alongside Benicio Del Toro and Adrien Brody.

The show is stolen, however, by Westworld and Boardwalk Empire alumni Jeffrey Wright. In the final vignette of the film, Wright’s journalist character goes on a talk show to speak about his most famous articles.

His cadence is smooth and unique, and no one can quite pull off speech as eloquent and charming as Wright. He relays to us a story in which a child is kidnapped and ultimately rescued through the power of fine cuisine.

In other bizarre episodes, reporters give us a rundown of their craft. Wilson regales us with his knowledge of the architecture and people of Paris. Perhaps the funniest vignette in the movie is the one in which Brody’s sleazy art dealer, Julian Cadazio, convinces a prolific painter/murderer played by Del Toro to finally make his masterpiece.

The two men negotiate over business and when Cadazio reveals himself to be an uncultured entrepreneur, Del Toro’s character makes his masterpiece a fresco impression on the prison walls. This disappoints Brody’s character immensely as he cannot profit from this art which is now owned by the government, and a prison riot ensues, naturally.

There are some young stars in this that really shine, too. Resident heartthrob Timothée Chalamet delivers one of his more deliberate performances as a college student protesting the French government and its colonialist policies in Africa and Asia.

He writes a manifesto and takes part in the vital student movement until he meets his match in the much older reporter and mentor Frances McDormand. A romantic relationship ensues and Chalamet’s revolutionary hero dies after falling off a signal tower on top of his pirate radio shack, naturally. 

The stories here are great. They are funny, totally original, and undoubtedly entertaining. The film is a relentless patchwork of beautifully colored scenes and bizarre moments. The last 20 minutes are animated, for instance. A sequence in which a cartoon Edward Norton escapes from the police is particularly entertaining.

However, there are some holes here. The incessant need to have every character in the movie played by an A-list celebrity gives minor parts an odd feeling. For example, Academy-Award nominee Saorsie Ronan is visually stunning as a young criminal and outlaw. But her two lines leave us wondering why she was contracted for this role in the first place.

Anderson’s quest for beauty in his films is admirable. He has tried to replicate what many in the NBA have criticized LeBron James for doing with his super teams. The result is impressive and a true cinema event, but one has to admit disappointment in seeing Ronan burn through her two minutes of screen time.

As far as the visuals go, Anderson could consider this his opus. All previous films of his have been leading here, but he is so indulgent with his aims, that it comes off as careless when it comes to the plot. “The French Dispatch” is beautiful, well-acted and definitively one of Anderson’s most intriguing films. 

With that being said, it is also a film which a viewer unfamiliar with Anderson might not enjoy. As a fan of his and having seen every other movie he has made, it was a big night for me. I was able to take in the beauty and quirkiness of this artsy film in great spirits, even though I was all by myself.

That is the wonder of the theater though. I was among strangers, initially feeling silly for showing up alone. Soon, we were all laughing together like old friends, catching obscure historical references and commenting on the set design and costumes.

My first night back at the movies wouldn’t have been for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed it. After the show, I got in my car and pulled out my phone. The sweet baby on my background smiled at me as I ran my seatbelt across my chest. I couldn’t wait to get home.

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