Review: Asteroid City
Matthew Bowden finds Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City delightful, particularly noting the all-star cast and trademark visual style.
Film critics may describe Wes Anderson as a whole genre unto himself, but circles of the internet have taken this a step further in recognising his parodic potential. A few years ago, Saturday Night Live put together a very sharp spoof trailer sketch for a hypothetical Wes Anderson horror film, pithily titled “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders”, where the would-be murderers politely set out their intentions through hand-written letters. The application of Anderson’s deadpan sensibility to a genre flick is pretty pertinent to his most recent outing Asteroid City, which in part can be summarised as “Wes Anderson does alien invasion”.
This may be slightly too broad-stroke, but the director’s trademark visual style is as saturated within this movie as it has ever been. There are the standard symmetrical shots, unconventional zooms and whip pans that leave no question as to who is at the helm. In particular, the town of Asteroid City itself takes Anderson’s meticulous, dollhouse-like construction to a whole new level. Every object, from a phone box to a series of motel condos, looks like it can be delicately picked up and rearranged at will.
…the director’s trademark visual style is as saturated within this movie as it has ever been
This is in part due to the ingrained meta-theatricality of the narrative. The film is operating on two levels: the real setting contextualising the production of the titular work Asteroid City, as well as the fictional events of the play itself. It starts with the play’s writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) setting the scene – and, as mentioned, the anal levels of attention-to-detail required for stagecraft unsurprisingly suit Anderson down to the ground. We then dive into the quaint 1950s desert world in which the play takes place, where self-important war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his children are travelling through the American West, heading for a Junior Stargazer convention that the eldest Woodrow (Jake Ryan) has been selected for. When their car conveniently breaks down in Asteroid City, Augie is forced to confront both his irritable father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks), as well as the burden of telling his children (three of whom are young pre-teen girls) that their mother is not going to be making the trip with them anytime soon.
…the anal levels of attention-to-detail required for stagecraft unsurprisingly suit Anderson down to the ground
The convention draws an almighty manner of bit-part guests: the young brainiac’s guardians, including renowned actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) whom Augie develops a strange fascination with; a band of kids on a school trip headed by peppy teacher June (Maya Hawke); a plethora of army types including convention speaker General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright); and, rather bewilderingly, a group of cowboys led by a suavely dressed Rupert Everett. But they do not turn out to be the strangest visitors to Asteroid City. During a solar eclipse viewing, a UFO appears over the gathering party, and an alien rather sheepishly drops down and makes off with a fragment of the meteorite (or asteroid) which brought the town its celebrity status. Where do we go from here?
In reference to Wes Anderson, Mark Kermode loves to blend the words quirky and irksome (making “quirksome”) as a pithy elucidation of when the director’s films cross over from a point of unorthodox pleasure to pain. For me, Asteroid City is much less guilty of this compared to his previous film The French Dispatch, which really suffered from a strongly alienating (pun unintended) middle section. This one has a toe-tapping kineticism to it, beginning with Johnny Duncan’s “Last Train to San Fernando” playing over the hustling of a freight train into Asteroid City, with the star-studded cast list rolling by like the carriages on said train. The strained relationship between Augie and Stanley, which incidentally feels underdeveloped, adds an element of pathos that is often missing from his more insular works, and the new cast members (Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson and Steve Carrell) are very welcome additions – and the latter in particular getting a chuckle from me every time he cheerfully bats away a complaint with a jolly “Of course sir, I understand”.
The strained relationship between Augie and Stanley, which incidentally feels underdeveloped, adds an element of pathos that is often missing from his more insular works
Yet, the film has shortcomings, which largely revolve around its repeated cutbacks to the real world of the play’s production, including a scene with the film’s director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), as well as Willem Dafoe making his standard Anderson appearance as an intense, wide-eyed acting teacher. Not only do these interrupt the moment of the play’s unfolding, they seem to serve not much more than Anderson making satirical quips about the capricious nature of the creative experience. It also gives him a chance to show off that he can operate across colour schemes (black-and-white to stylised palettes) and ratios (widescreen to Academy 35mm).
Asteroid City rewards repeat viewings I would say – it may seem like less than the sum of its parts the first time round, but there are charming elements to the way that the story unfolds. And, as always, it looks lovely.