Review: Asteroid City

Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City opens with an aircheck, an old broadcast from WXYZ-TV, with Bryan Cranston doing his best Rod Serling as “the host,” introducing a television presentation of “a play in three acts,” set in September 1955 (so presumably airing sometime not LONG thereafter). This was not unusual; much of what we now call the “Golden Age of Television” consisted of live broadcasts of popular plays, ingeniously staged to allow then-primitive television cameras to capture a rough approximation of the theatrical experience, while still remaining visually dynamic. But that’s not what Anderson does. We watch that three-act play (called, coincidentally enough, “Asteroid City”) as neither a 4×3 black-and-white TV broadcast nor within the stage proscenium, but as a wide-screen, richly saturated movie epic. 

In other words, as in his previous The French Dispatch and throughout his filmography, the story Anderson tells here is presented within a frame, and then maybe within another frame or two inside that, just for fun. His detractors will claim that this is yet another case of the sui generis director being unnecessarily/unreasonably clever, perhaps merely for the sake of being clever. 

And make no mistake about it—there’s a real temptation, at this point in his career, to review a new Wes Anderson movie primarily by mounting a defense. By now his signature flourishes have become familiar enough to inspire parodies, rip-offs, and even AI imitations: intricate tracking shots, perfectly symmetrical compositions, multi-level narratives, meticulous production design, a bursting-at-the-seams rep company, carefully placed running gags, and casual incorporation of models and puppets. (The latter results in perhaps my favorite opening credit line of the year so far: “JEFF GOLDBLUM as the alien.”)

The cast of characters here is so rich, pulling from such a deep bench of both Anderson regulars and newbies, that to run them all down and summarize the events therein would take up the rest of the allotted space for this review and leave no room for criticism. (Perhaps this is a deliberate ploy by Mr. Anderson, the clever boy.) All you need to know is that the central action—that is, the action of the play within the TV show within the movie—is confined to the titular city, a nowhere pit stop in the middle of the desert notable only as the landing spot for a bowling ball-sized asteroid, many centuries ago. 


Now it is where “Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets” (read: science nerds) gather once a year to receive awards for their achievements and partake of the private sector-funded facility nearby, and as you’ve probably put together from that Goldblum credit, unexpectedly meet an alien. Much of the complicated narrative derives from its unpeeling, so I’ll leave it at that; suffice it to to say that we have Edward Norton doing Tennessee Williams, Scarlett Johansson doing Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Hanks doing Bill Murray, and Tilda Swinton continuing to use Anderson’s pictures as an outlet for her silliest comic characterizations.

The familiar elements are all in place, of course, as are a couple of others that aren’t mentioned as often (perhaps because they aren’t as easy to smarmily name-check). There’s something sort of miraculous about his blocking, in both the square and wide screen; his carefully composed two-and-three shots allow sparks of comic timing and performance-friendly rhythm that beats cutting and coverage all to hell. And his dialogue is especially witty this time around (of his recently deceased wife, Jason Schwartzmann tells his children, “Let’s just say she’s in Heaven, which doesn’t exist for me, of course, but you’re Episcopalian”), which is perhaps more noteworthy because of the successful addition of Johansson to the company. Her rough, flat vocal quality is a good vehicle for the bone-dry wit and matter-of-fact emotion of his writing.

And, as there so often is, there’s more to Asteroid City than meets the eye; he’s not just playing his greatest hits, but gently nudging the borders of his canvas, satisfying our desire for a “Wes Anderson movie” while subtly expanding the scope of what that might be. The theatrical setting of the story (sorta) allows him to indulge in his theatricality a bit more, with a handful of monologues that aren’t quite like anything he’s written before, in a very satisfying way. The complicated scaffolding of the structure allows him to break the fourth wall a bit, and then bust a couple more for good measure. And there’s a glorious weirdness to its closing passages—a risk, which his critics seem to doubt his ability to take.

But the moment that matters comes late, when Schwartzmann (not as his character but the actor playing him—in the play, though also in this film), who’s been in nearly every Wes Anderson film to date, asks his director (Adrien Brody) if he’s doing ok, and despairs, “I still don’t understand the play.” What his director says in response, and the sum total of that exchange, may well be the most profound thing Wes Anderson has ever written about what he does. And then it’s over in a blink, and he’s moved on to something else that’s playful, or odd, or sweet. Asteroid City is not as furiously funny as The French Dispatch, nor as quietly pointed as The Grand Budapest Hotel. But it’s a deeply pleasurable picture, with a thing or two to say besides, and that’s not nothing.

B+

“Asteroid City” is out Friday in limited release. It goes wide on June 23.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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