Asteroid City Review | A Very Pretty Crater

by Andrew Parker

For his latest – and potentially most inaccessible – work to date, Asteroid City, filmmaker Wes Anderson has created a movie that has a lot of things to say, no real idea how to tie them all together, and a perfect mastery of the language with which he chooses to tell this variety of stories. A messy, but captivating pastiche that will undoubtedly take multiple viewings to make full sense of it all, Asteroid City is both a big swing, and yet wholly familiar. The familial themes, playful stylistic flourishes, and self-reflexivity Anderson has built his career upon to date are still on vibrant display, but there are also a lot of conflicting, often contradictory emotions that aren’t being fully explored. It’s a strange movie, and not one of Anderson’s best, but Asteroid City is still engaging. 

Just like all Anderson films, it’s eye catching, witty, devoid of modern comforts, and overstuffed with talent. Asteroid City goes back to 1955, in a small American desert town, not far from where the U.S. government is testing its nuclear weaponry. Upon this tiny little hamlet, a group of brilliant young minds and their parents are gathering for the annual Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets convention. The meet-up takes place on Asteroids Day – celebrating a major astronomical event – and the youngsters are vying for a major government backed scholarship. Two of the parents – photojournalist Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) – strike up an unexpected friendship and kinship that grows stronger after an unusual occurrence sends the entire town into a prolonged, quarantined lockdown.

That’s only a small taste of what’s happening in Asteroid City, a seemingly boundless production made by someone who doesn’t quite know when enough is enough. Most of this is about Augie’s journey, the grief over losing his wife, and his testy relationship to his disapproving, wealthy father-in-law (Tom Hanks). But it’s also about Midge fleeing an abusive working environment, debates over what constitutes deadly weaponry, making contact with aliens, a young teacher (Maya Hawke) leaning on the help of a local cowboy (Rupert Friend) to keep her antsy students engaged, and an overly friendly hotel manager (Steve Carell) trying to sell parcels of land in the middle of nowhere.

It’s also a meta-movie because all of the story is framed as if it were an old school televised play, written by a famed playwright (Edward Norton) and directed by someone whose career and personal life are on the rocks (Adrien Brody). The viewer isn’t watching something real, they’re watching a play, a reflection of the people creating fiction, which is itself, thanks to the inclusion of a narrator (Bryan Cranston), a fiction in and of itself. It’s strangely less confusing than that makes Asteroid City sound.

But that’s also part of the problem. So much of Asteroid City is based in threads that don’t really connect or engage with one another. It’s dreamlike in its strangeness and ability to tap into the occasional emotional well, but it’s also fussy and constructed by an artist who likes everything to appear just-so-perfect. The push and pull relationship Anderson and frequent collaborating co-writer Roman Coppola have with the intrinsic chaos of their story is an uneasy one because of the director’s strict, and usually pleasing attention to detail. It’s not Anderson’s visually dazzling sense of whimsy that’s the problem with Asteroid City, but rather his now all but trademarked droll sense of humour that runs afoul of a forming a better, more lasting picture. One idea will start to take shape, and then it will abruptly stop to quickly move along and cover something else.

The experimental shifting between its two fictional realms with vastly different senses of style – one relentlessly colourful and the other in simple, full frame black and white – is ambitious, but neither half fully enhances the whole. There are some clear parallels between the creatives working behind the scenes and the final product that an audience watches, but they’re falling largely flat thanks to Anderson’s rigid adherence to deadpan performance. While the scenery, set design, musical score, cinematography, visual effects, costuming, and prop work throughout Asteroid City are as top tier as anything Anderson has ever done, this is also the first film where the director’s penchant for stacking their casts with virtually half of Hollywood is also used as nothing more than window dressing. Outside of Jeffrey Wright, who gets the film’s biggest laughs as a hardened General and has maybe a total of ten minutes of screen time, none of the dozens of other performers in Asteroid City are making much of an impression. Schwartzman and Johansson have an interesting chemistry, but their characters are lacking a pulse. Not many times are the performers allowed to rise above Anderson’s material, with the filmmaker’s restrained tone shackling them all to a very basic, almost monotonous level.

But it’s still not a bad film overall in spite of an approach that’s sure to prove divisive. Anderson still imbues Asteroid City with the spirit of inventiveness and experimentation throughout, and if nothing else, it’s a movie with nothing to lose. Asteroid City is a film made by a director in full mastery of their techniques and fetishes who is unafraid of failure or alienation. What’s it all about? I’m not entirely sure because the emotions are so muddled and understated. Is this the film Anderson wanted to make? Absolutely.

Asteroid City opens in theatres across Canada starting Friday, June 23, 2022.

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