Movie Review: Asteroid City

Covid sure did a number on the directors of the world. The canon of household renowned auteurs has been reflecting in and on the quarantine, the carriage of trauma and remoteness of parents and children, as is the collective experience of the visitors to Asteroid City, Arid Plains, Nevada, but more so artists have been pushed to reflect on why they do what they do. To confront the desperation of it now that they couldn’t set foot on a set, and in the face of, to paraphrase Steven Spielberg, some drastically shifted priorities.

Asteroid City, named for a play within a TV broadcast hosted by a Walter Cronkite-type, seems to be a reflection on art and artist, but so doing, as any great film will have, has left the door open for anyone who’s ever stopped to regard themselves in some capacity. Just what are we doing here? A play, a film, whatever, it’s all pieces of lives put together again anyway. Organized, even.

Be forewarned, this trailer spoils some great gags.

These ideas may sound ill-defined, but Wes has fashioned himself a style that absolves him of clear answers and powers his rigid characters to moments of enfettered emotional gutpunchery, without straying from their subdued characterisation. This is likely to be his most alienating film, even as buzz propels it to a solid box office result, though for many it will be nearly as funny as The Grand Budapest Hotel (still Wes’ Capital C Classic), as brilliantly realised as The French Dispatch, as emotionally resonant as Moonrise Kingdom, as twee as any of the others. You’d think the minimal locations, stunning work by Adam Stockhausen once again proving himself a definitive force in his craft, would help viewers sink their teeth into the story at hand, and of course, one is being told, but it’s less the happenings of the story than the story itself that holds the greatest value, and that value is therefore, somewhat buried.

The framework, that of a sporadically involved television show inspecting the inner-workings of a fictional stage production (‘Asteroid City’ is the play itself), is downright esoteric, laced with history and inside baseball for the artsy and/or nerdy, (“this is like Marilyn Monroe with Arthur Miller, the three little girls call themselves witches like the three fates, Macbeth, Shakespeare-wow-wow”). This sort of treatment will always favour an artist or critic in the audience but look and you’ll see more in the voids in Wes’ characters than you could have bargained for.

It may be his best film and has certainly left the greatest impression on this writer (and there’s just something downright perfect about Jason Schwartzman starring in Wes’ best, with the best performance of his career, eyes at half-mast throughout). Plus, the jokes are as light and, frankly, dumb as ever; a spoonful of sugar, each grain laid precisely 3 millimeters on either side from the nearest sister-grain, helps the despondency go down. Alexandre Desplat comes in with a curio of a score, sparse but just too good for words (its variations between scenes hold more than a little insight into the heart of the film), meanwhile Anderson has again gathered his troupe of talents (a handful of exciting fresh faces among them), who seem attracted to the challenge, lending each a wonderful opportunity to puppeteer themselves as marionettes (not literally). Bryan Cranston likened the experience to playing in an ensemble; you mind your instrument and let Wes orchestrate. Maybe that’s why his characters, as supposedly “two-dimensional” as they are, contain a great interiority, which fuels your understanding of any sudden development; psychological, narrative, or metanarrative alike.

asteroid city film

He’s reached and maintained that clockwork precision and total clarity in his style ever since Grand Budapest, and though he’s put it to unique employ each time, Anderson seems incapable of self-cannibalism. Everyone knows it already, everyone knows whether they like it (if this one’s grade looks especially harsh, it should be said that it looks great on a movie screen), and it’s not like after The French Dispatch he could’ve amped it up much more. That’s why the Rotten Tomatoes score for the last however many of Anderson’s films has hovered in the same zone. It’s likely that all quibbles and ‘…but I wish he’d just…’s will fall to the wayside sometime after Wes has concluded his utterly singular career. He’ll emerge as a gift to the movies, Tati and Wilder and Ashby and Zeman, but, as those ghoulish AI and TikTok recreations seem to misunderstand, more than the sum of his parts. The fact is that this outing is incredible and fantastically pleasant viewing as well.

Asteroid City, for instance, teaches you a lot about just what he’s been getting at in all of these movies, the mercurial disaffection of being a person (singular). The mixture of grief, smart-aleckisms, conviction, insecurity, a kind of anti-phenomenology that reduces to its purest function when paved over by the Anderson style. The characters, mostly, say precisely what they mean. The filmmaking does so little to place you into their perspective. The core is elusive, but ordained with old, old, old-school movie magicianship (the fabricated dreams of Melies or Chomón). A tool like the changes in aspect ratio or colour, or the beyond material fabrication of the world, which so often opens up to invite the fourth wall to a quick end, works as framing, it’s an external choice that would seem to put you at odds with empathizing with these weirdos. But they are us, each and every one.

The mostly stone-faced screen goddess and underappreciated comedienne Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) asks “Why did you do that?”. “It’s not clear”. That sentiment is echoed throughout the saccharine scenery and pulpy plot, both brilliant, bounding together the caricatures at the centre of the play. What is this movie really, honestly about? It’s not clear. The film is all the richer for that fact, and this reviewer suspects most will leave with a marginally different mixture of existential quandaries rolling around their head, fighting for space with the best laughs or most striking tableaus from the film. Things can be easier to grasp when they aren’t so concrete, and Asteroid City takes to exhilarating flight in moments of strict ambiguity and stylism which suddenly pronounces itself as striking, even among a film so extreme and detailed as this is from beginning to end. As I see it; it’s a lonesome business, being alive, reaching out. Why would you do that? It’s not clear.