Wes Anderson is the type of director whose work is so firmly situated in the cultural consciousness that even those who have only seen one or two of his films can immediately recognize his style. Over the years, parodies of Anderson doing X-Men or a horror movie have popped up on YouTube and SNL and more recently, AI has been used to create fake trailers for Star Wars and Lord of the Rings in Anderson’s emblematic style. The question around Asteroid City, the latest from the oft-caricatured auteur, is whether Anderson would drastically change things up to keep audiences guessing or continue with the muted and mannered methodology to which viewers have become accustomed. For the most part, Anderson plays to his strengths in terms of aesthetic and tone but the difference here is in the richness of emotions from the film’s panoply of characters.
Set within a play of the same name, Asteroid City takes place in a fictional desert settlement named after a meteorite that landed thousands of years ago and created a crater where a science fair is now held annually. Rolling into town for the 1955 Junior Stargazer Convention are five teenaged honorees, there to show off their impressive retrofuturistic inventions, along with their respective families. Fittingly, one of the teenagers, Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan), is nicknamed “Brainiac” and brings with him his photographer father Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and three sisters. He strikes up a fast friendship with fellow Stargazer Dinah Campbell (Grace Edwards), whose actress mother Midge (Scarlett Johansson) similarly begins a relationship with the recently-widowed Augie.
Being a Wes Anderson movie, Asteroid City additionally boasts dozens of other eccentric players and ornate vignettes to detail this world-within-a-world. He’s assembled impressive casts before but this may be Anderson’s most stacked ensemble to date; when superstars like Tom Hanks and Steve Carell pop up only for a few scenes each, seemingly because the film is already bursting at the seams with talent, it becomes even more apparent the embarrassment of riches this project has become. The sheer amount of familiar faces, which also includes Anderson stalwarts like Jeffrey Wright and Tilda Swinton, may connote that these characters are disposable or replaceable but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Some of their stories are funny and some of them are sad but they’re all interesting and would be worth diving into on their own terms.
The writing in Anderson’s work is often droll and direct, ripe for satire but also whip smart and difficult to emulate authentically. Asteroid City has several trademark pithy exchanges, the first conversation over phone between Augie and his father-in-law being a clear example, but over time, the dialogue becomes more reflective and introspective. The play can be seen both as a Cold War parable and a pandemic allegory, where isolation and fear underscore human’s desperate need for connection. Augie and Midge’s tryst is fueled by conversations between open windows in adjacent motel rooms, their framing resembling the video chat confines of computer screens. When juxtaposed with an alley-set chat between the actor playing Augie and the actress that was to portray Augie’s wife, Anderson’s comment seems to be that people will cross any barriers to carry out meaningful conversation.
If things in Asteroid City weren’t metatextual enough, there is another layer of artifice by way of a TV show narrated with Rod Serling-like candor by Bryan Cranston about how the play was performed. Though these scenes are in black-and-white and in a markedly different aspect ratio than the Panavision widescreen used for the play itself, it can be tricky keeping track of what world we’re in when. Cranston’s character even pops up briefly in one of the full-color scenes by accident, only to slyly slink away back to his own universe. Despite these veneers of unreality, Anderson is careful never to lose the thread of why each of these characters matter and why we should care about them. That’s a breakthrough worth celebrating for a filmmaker who has, from time to time in his stellar career, favored cerebral flourish over genuine sentiment.
Score – 4/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Playing in theaters is Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, an action-adventure sequel starring Harrison Ford and Phoebe Waller-Bridge which concludes the 5-film arc of the titular archaeologist as he teams up with his goddaughter to retrieve a legendary artifact that can change the course of history.
Also coming to the multiplex is Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken, an animated fantasy comedy starring Lana Condor and Toni Collette about a shy teenager who learns that she comes from a fabled royal family of legendary sea krakens and that her destiny lies in the depths of the waters.
Streaming on Netflix is Run Rabbit Run, a psychological horror film starring Sarah Snook and Lily LaTorre following a fertility doctor who must challenge her own values and confront a ghost from her past after noticing the strange behavior of her young daughter.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup