Film Review: Asteroid City | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, September 27th, 2023  

Asteroid City

Studio: Focus Features
Director: Wes Anderson

Jun 29, 2023 Web Exclusive
Bookmark and Share

In recent years film director Wes Anderson has become a favored subject of affectionate parody, particularly online, including a current social media trend in which each posted video begins with a caption to the effect of “You better not be acting like you’re in a Wes Anderson film.” This statement describes the divide: people who are weary of Anderson’s overly-composed, too-cute brand of filmmaking and people who can’t help but love it. Likely indifferent to public commentary either way, Anderson has continued to burrow deeper into his increasingly-refined aesthetic with each film.

Anderson’s latest is Asteroid City. The story takes place in September 1955 in a tiny desert town in the American southwest where the Junior Stargazers are convening, along with their parents, scientists, members of the military, and others on the supposed anniversary of a meteorite’s impact in said town many millennia ago. Among the Junior Stargazers is Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan), chaperoned by his war photographer father Augie (Jason Schwartzman). Augie has declined to tell Woodrow and his three younger sisters that their mother has recently died and that her cremated ashes are in a Tupperware in his possession.

Augie’s father-in-law (Tom Hanks) shows up to provide something like support, but it’s conversations with actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), herself a parent of a Junior Stargazer, that actually move the needle towards reflection for Augie. Woodrow, for his part, forms a romantic bond with Midge’s daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards). As in other recent films from Anderson, Asteroid City boasts a bloated ensemble cast: Steve Carell plays a motel manager, Jeffrey Wright a general, Tilda Swinton an astronomer, Matt Dillon a car mechanic.

The entire tale described above, however, is really a story-within-a-story as the film begins in the form of a black-and-white broadcast television program about a play entitled “Asteroid City” which is not being staged on a traditional stage for an in-person audience but is instead being presented on a soundstage for the television program. If that sounds like a bit too much — that’s because it is. When the black-and-white program cuts to segments of the play, we see them in color. In what was probably a wise marketing decision, all black-and-white clips have been excised from the trailers and TV spots released for the film to date.

The majority of the film is this play-within-a-TV-program. Johansson, for instance, does not simply play Midge Campbell. She is playing an actress (needlessly given the name Mercedes Ford) who is playing Midge Campbell. As Anderson puts it, she is “an actress playing an actress playing an actress.” This is the case for all characters in the play within the film: they are actually playing actors playing their roles.

But just why does a story have to be wrapped in another story? One work depicted within another work? Does this framing serve a purpose? Stories are often imparted only after the storyteller explains where the story came from and how they came to hear it. Contextualization happens. But, in this case, it’s not clear that the inclusion of this additional context makes for a better film. In many ways, however, the packaging has always been as important as the story itself to Anderson. Perhaps it’s appropriate that he be the one to apply the first layer of gift wrap to his story.

At this point in his career, one has the sense that Anderson’s films are, on some level, mimicking his previous work. Although Anderson may enter into each new project with a genuine interest in creating a distinct film, his collaborators are surely looking at his previous films for reference. Here the actors seem to be, at least subconsciously, imitating the demeanor of actors from other Anderson films. There’s the rushed, clipped delivery of dialogue, spoken just above a whisper. There’s the utter lack of freedom of movement for the actors: dolls waiting for a child’s hand to manipulate their limbs and head.

As every component of Anderson’s films become more and more distilled, as he gets better at the very specific thing he does, his films feel more and more alien within the landscape of cinema — at least to those yet uninitiated to his films. Who then besides the already initiated are these films for? Can one reasonably recommend the latest Anderson film to a neighbor or a passing acquaintance? Increasingly, no. And unfortunately, as his ensemble casts grow, as his layers of storytelling become more convoluted, some of the magic felt in his previous films is missed. Asteroid City is decidedly lacking in depth of feeling. Nothing comes close to Richie Tenenbaum’s anguish at learning of his adopted sister Margot’s many lovers in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) or even prison officer Simone’s belief in and affection for prisoner/painter Moses Rosenthaler in The French Dispatch (2021).

All that said, for those fluent in Anderson’s unique dialect, Asteroid City does build upon his past efforts in a few meaningful ways.

Chiefly, the film serves as a masterclass in staging and set design. It’s said production designer Adam Stockhausen sought to create a “studio backlot artificiality.” The degree of that artificiality is very carefully calculated. From a filling station to an unfinished highway ramp; saguaro cacti and distant rock formations — all allude to the limitations in depicting reality when staging a play. At the same time, there’s a degree of realism that hints at what can be achieved in the minds of an audience that is bestowing their full attention and suspending their disbelief.

Admirers of Anderson will be pleased to spot Seu Jorge strumming guitar as he did while donning a red cap aboard Steve Zissou’s ship. There’s an animated roadrunner worthy of raiding the farms of Boggis, Bunch, and Bean with Mr. Fox. And Schwartzman delivers his best performance since Max Fischer staged “Heaven and Hell” at Rushmore Academy. If all that sounds like off-planet prattle, you may not feel the pull of the theater. Though, as with the alien appearance in the film, Asteroid City will elicit a rapt interest from the stargazers who do decide to show up.

Author rating: 6/10

Rate this movie
Average reader rating: 6/10


Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.