Released 2023. Director: Wes Anderson
WHEN YOU SEE A WES ANDERSON MOVIE YOU KNOW exactly what to expect. Anderson has created a signature style so distinctive over his career he could just about lay claim to a genre all his own. Every couple of years, we get a chance to enter his whimsical universe where the visuals, tone, structure and theme are familiar and instantly recognisable yet always sparkle with freshness and discovery.
The overlapping narratives of Asteroid City unfold in Anderson’s favourite configuration: a story within a story (and maybe another one for good measure). Bryan Cranston plays a TV host looking straight at us introducing a program on the playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). As Earp’s story is being narrated, we enter his theatre production of “Asteroid City” and meet the characters, including recently widowed photographer Augie (Jason Schwartzman), actress Midge (Scarlett Johansson), astronomer Dr Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), town mechanic (Matt Dillon) and motel manager (Steve Carell).
Halfway into the movie, we're back on the TV show and go behind the scene of the play where we see director Schubert (Adrien Brody) interact with the cast. The change in perspective is self-aware as it examines the craft of storytelling and performance evaluation in relation to the artists’ real-life experiences (Schubert’s wife, played by Hong Chau, drops in for a visit). Reality and make-believe is always inter-mingling as Anderson shifts points of view and moves the narrative sideways, like a stage master changing background scenery on a stage.
Getting back to Asteroid City, the tourist destination in the desert reminiscent of a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoon reel is getting busy. Befitting its claim to fame as an impact crater site left by a meteorite 5,000 years ago, the one-street town is hosting the year’s Young Stargazer awards. Families of the nominated teenagers have arrived and the only motel is booked out.
War photographer Augie, whose son Woodrow is one of the award nominees, is struggling to tell his four children their mother has died. He is mourning and considering leaving his kids with his father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks).
The awards ceremony, which takes place inside the massive crater, is interrupted by the appearance of a UFO hovering over everyone as a slinky alien slithers down a ladder, picks up the treasured meteorite and zooms away. Asteroid City is promptly put under quarantine as the military works out what to do next. This unexpected lockdown means everyone gets a chance to spend more time with each other.
With more than three dozen speaking parts popping in and out of the scenes, it feels unfortunate that some actors only appear once, including Jeff Goldblum, Hong Chau and Margot Robbie. The ensemble collectively delivers quality performances capturing a deadpan edge in their comic tone. In this closed-up, locked-down setting, they deal with sorrow, surprises, disruptions and disappointments with aplomb and composure.
Underneath a veneer of cheery whimsy, a vague sense of melancholy flows through the movie, mainly from the way Augie deals with his wife’s passing and his interactions with Midge. In a large ensemble cast these two are the main couple but their story doesn’t generate sufficient interest or sentiment and is far less engaging compared with the principal characters in Anderson’s other movies.
The technical precision, once again, is classic Anderson and the storybook look blending stage props and photography is beautifully detailed. The pastel palette and visual language are so conspicuous at times they seem to eclipse the narrative. A case in point being the scenes featuring Augie and Midge speaking to each other from their adjacent cabins. Augie is framed in his window, seen through the square of Midge’s window, and vice versa. Anderson’s painstaking composition and blocking technique can get overly noticeable that it distracts from the sentiment being expressed. In this case, Augie and Midge are making a connection, sharing personal details about family and relationships.
Anderson’s customary emphasis on the visual grammar of his movies is a delight for the eyes, even though it’s achieved at the expense of emotional engagement. His characters may walk around with plenty of feeling but they only make statements and never act on them. Like getting a polite handshake when you're expecting a warm hug. As the actor playing Augie confides to Schubert at one point, “I still don’t understand the story.” To which the director replies: “Doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story.” Bearing this in mind is a good way to approach (and perhaps enjoy) Asteroid City.
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