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Asteroid City Review

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Asteroid City opens in theaters on June 16, 2023.


Wes Anderson is the cilantro of American cinema.

Obviously any movie—and the same can be said for a book, a song, a painting, whatever—comes down to “well, you either like it or you don’t.” But with Anderson, a filmmaker whose aesthetic is so distinctive that one can purchase one of several publications devoted to places and things that look like they come from an Anderson film but don’t, it’s essentially an acid test. Like the controversial herb often found on tacos, it’s either a “heck yeah” or an “oh, Lord, that makes me sick” at this point.

I am and always have been in the “heck yeah” Wes Anderson camp. I respect the attention to detail, busy choreography, the sudden shifts from antic humor to achingly raw emotion, the deep-in-the-crates needle-drops, and occasional bursts of mild violence. Asteroid City, Anderson’s eleventh feature, is a wonderful example of his strengths.

As with The Grand Budapest Hotel, this is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, but also mixes mediums with a kind of dream logic. Ostensibly it is a behind-the-scenes look of a You Are There-type reenactment series, as was popular in the early days of television, focused on the life of a playwright named Conrad Earp, played by Edward Norton. (But, to be clear, we’re watching Norton play someone playing Earp; just wait, it’ll get more confusing.)

This is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story, but also mixes mediums with a kind of dream logic.


Earp’s masterpiece was the play Asteroid City, and we are privy to some backstage shenanigans involving its casting, its direction (care of Adrien Brody, fresh off a “Method acting” kick in the underwhelming Netflix picture Blonde), and its rewrites. But the bulk of the movie has the perspective leaping “inside” the play, which is shot like a typical movie.

No. Wait. Not a typical movie. A Wes Anderson movie, and maybe the most Wes Anderson movie.

Using “this is a play” as a justification, perhaps, Anderson, his production designer, cinematographer, costume department, and performers slam their feet on the accelerator. Every shot is an absurdly fussed-over diorama, with nary an eyelash out of place. It looks like it took forever to get right, but it pays off because it’s all done exceptionally well.

Every shot is an absurdly fussed-over diorama, with nary an eyelash out of place.


So what about the story? (Of the play within the TV show within the movie, that is.) Well, it’s about a group of young genius stargazers who visit an isolated spot in the middle of the desert where, other than the 60¢ hamburgers, the only thing worth looking at is an asteroid. But while the kids—who come off like a mix of the campers from Moonrise Kingdom with the youngest generation of royal Tenenbaums—are there, something very Sputnik-era happens. (No spoilers, but it involves Jeff Goldblum doing some out-of-this-world body movements.)

And that’s still not what Asteroid City (the movie, not the play or the TV show) is really about. As with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Darjeeling Limited, this is a poignant story about someone facing his own grief. Our lead this time is Jason Schwartzman, as Augie Steenback, a newly widowed war photographer with a precocious son and a set of very funny triplets. His late wife’s father, a very Bill Murray-esque Tom Hanks with whom he doesn’t exactly see eye-to-eye, comes to visit. They communicate with a deadpan frankness that is completely absurd, but weirdly touching. Hanks is clearly filling in for a role typically played in an Anderson film by Murray, but still makes the part his own. The otherworldly incident everyone experiences shifts their perspective—but also doesn’t. They know they should be wowed, but quickly get back to their typical neurotic obsessions.

Asteroid City Trailer Images

There are a million other characters, too: like Scarlett Johansson as a movie star, Maya Hawke as a schoolteacher, Jeffrey Wright as a by-the-book Army general, Rupert Friend as a singing cowboy, Steve Carrell as a prospector/motel owner, and many, many more. Everyone is good (including Matt Dillon, who shows up for a hot minute!) and what’s fun is you can argue later about which small role was your favorite. I was particularly keen on one of the tyke stargazers who refused to pay attention in class.

This is one of those classic Wes Anderson-pulls-the-rug-from-you moments.


But keep in mind these are characters within the play, and, at times, we see the “actual” actors, too. Things fold in on themselves during a very touching scene in which Schwartzman, so assured during his audition, approaches Brody when he realizes that he doesn’t actually understand the play.

This, like Ben Stiller telling Gene Hackman “it’s been a really hard year” at the end of The Royal Tenenbaums, is one of those classic Wes Anderson-pulls-the-rug-from-you moments. Those who level accusations that he’s merely a director with cool, symmetrical framing and consistent fonts aren’t paying attention.

That’s not to say he’s infallible. Compare this to Anderson’s most recent picture, The French Dispatch, which was far too meandering in its short story collection approach. It looked incredible, naturally, but it failed to punch me in the gut. Asteroid City has no such failings.

All this fussiness, both in the design and story structure, does have, I feel, a higher purpose. There isn’t a trickle of melancholy in Anderson’s best work, there’s a river. It’s just wearing a lot of makeup. Most of his movies—Rushmore, Life Aquatic, and Moonrise Kingdom, for instance—end with a vibe of “we’re going to get through this together, somehow,” set to a perfect musical accompaniment. The Grand Budapest Hotel, focused as it is on the rise of fascism, did not offer as much hope. Asteroid City is similarly disquieting.

Verdict

Arthur C. Clarke famously said “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Most storytelling making further inquiry on this topic has led to adventure or fantasy, not confusion and despair. In Asteroid City Wes Anderson has done the latter, but in a deceptively hilarious way, and with all the visual flair one would expect from this veteran auteur director and such a large cast of renowned actors. It’s one of the best movies he’s made.

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