FILM REVIEW: ASTEROID CITY
Release Date: 23rd June 2023
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright
Screenplay by: Wes Anderson
Cinematography: Robert Yeoman
Asteroid City proves that after 11 features spanning a career of 27 years, Wes Anderson still has the capacity to produce something unexpected. This is the director’s first foray into science fiction – not a natural fit on the face of it – but Anderson seems quite comfortable dabbling in the genre, and does it all in his own unique style. All of the filmmaker’s hallmarks are still present, from meticulously staged dioramas, elaborate tracking shots and whip pans, to pastel-coloured ensemble cast all repressing emotion as though their lives depended on it. Asteroid City won’t win Anderson any new fans, but the old ones will be delighted. It really is a pleasure.
Set during the mid-1950s, an assortment of parents and child prodigies (another “Family of Geniuses”) arrive at Asteroid City (pop. 87) to participate in the annual Junior Stargazer Convention. Jason Schwartzman plays the recently widowed Augie Steenbeck, who still hasn’t told his children about their mother’s death. Augie finds himself sharing an adjacent motel window with the equally wounded film star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Hardly a “city”, this no-horse town boasts a highway off-ramp that leads to nowhere, a motel with more guests than rooms, and a mysterious meteorite in a giant crater that lends the town its name. “Something” happens at the end of the first act that sees the entire town put on lockdown. It seems that not even Anderson is above being influenced by global pandemics.
As with The Grand Budapest Hotel, this is another Russian nesting doll-structured narrative. The bulk of the story takes place around the convention in the desert, but this is a story within a story. In some black & white bookended segments, Bryan Cranston’s Rod Serling-styled narrator informs us that what we are seeing is a filmed performance of a stage play written by renowned playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton – all southern charm and whistling “esses”). Asteroid City is a play within a TV show within a movie. Why? Well… why not? This is quintessential Anderson. What does it all mean? Ask me in a year.
It’s easier to say who isn’t part of the massive ensemble cast (Anderson regular Bill Murray is absent, with Tom Hanks almost certainly playing the part earmarked for Murray). Yes, there’s a lot going on, but it never feels too busy or overwhelming. Consistently amusing and genuinely funny, Asteroid City is also bathed in a pleasant, warm-hearted pathos.
I doubt that Anderson bothers with reviews, but of all the criticism regularly directed at him, the one that puzzles me the most is that his work is cold and detached. Anderson’s style has always masked a humanity that lies hidden beneath the perfectly-constructed surface. He takes unpredictable emotions like grief and sadness and examines them in precise, rigidly controlled environments. We’re shown the aftermath of grief, but not the cause. But by accident or design, here Anderson addresses the issue head on. In an uncharacteristically candid expression of self-analysis, Johansson describes Campbell and Steenbeck as “two catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depths of their pain, because we don’t want to”. “Let’s change the subject, shall we?” comes the reply. This is perhaps Anderson’s most empathetic movie since The Royal Tenenbaums. If there is an overriding theme, it’s about finding a connection in the most unlikely of places.
Most of Anderson’s work occupies a non-specific time period best described as “any time between the 1960s and the present”. Period specificity is a relatively new phenomenon for Anderson, only really beginning with The Grand Budapest Hotel. This timeless ambiguity contributed greatly to the oddness of the universes he creates, but Asteroid City is firmly steeped in 1950s Americana. It’s comforting and reliably the same, but with some new flourishes added on top.
Overall, this is a more rewarding and satisfying meal than the director’s previous effort. Where The French Dispatch suffered from the disjointed nature of the anthology movie, Asteroid City has the advantage of a dramatic unity that comes from picking one setting and one set of characters and sticking with them.
I don’t know how Anderson manages to do it again and again, but I’m eternally grateful that he does.