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Review: "Asteroid City" finds Wes Anderson pondering the mysteries of the cosmos
But the biggest questions are in our hearts, not in outer space
I have been enmeshed in the world of Wes Anderson for the better part of the last month, since I just wrapped up teaching a 4-week course on his work with our local non-profit cinema, FilmScene. It was a wonderful experience in many ways, but has also been a delightful period of rediscovery for me, getting reacquainted with a director I’ve counted among my favorites since 2007, when The Darjeeling Limited had me fall in love with his films. What makes Anderson special isn’t just his increasingly singular style, but how deeply felt his films are, what deceptively rich wellsprings of emotion they contain, and how much they perceive about the messiness of humanity, the exacting geometric perfection of his production design and compositions working to frame the mysteries of the world in ways we can, through art, come to make sense of.
His latest feature, Asteroid City, is entirely of a piece with this description of his work. The film is a very intentional web of contradictions: As tonally subdued and deadpan as anything he has ever made, while also containing the most outlandish, fantastical events of his filmography; Straightforward and laid back in pace, while also being highly complicated in structure, a story within a story wherein every actor is playing at least two parts, with some, like Scarlett Johansson, occasionally pushing into a third; A movie about the medium of theater (and, to a lesser extent, television, or at least television in the era where shows were still considered ‘teleplays’) conveyed through the language of film; and in all of this, those wellsprings of emotion run deep, sublimated but palpable for most of the runtime, until Anderson plays his hand and reveals what the film is really about, and everything suddenly hits very hard indeed.
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Asteroid City is the third in a loose trilogy Anderson has been crafting over the last decade of ‘Russian nesting doll’ narratives, stories about the process, craft, and shape of storytelling communicated through layered plots, time periods, and aspect ratios. The first was 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, where the central action was nestled within several layers of time through which the story was passed down, and the second was 2021’s criminally under-discussed The French Dispatch, an anthology film shaped like an issue of a New Yorker-style magazine. Asteroid City is presented as a ‘Golden Age’ (50s or 60s) TV program documenting the creation of a play, the eponymous “Asteroid City,” with the play itself being performed in the main body of the film, in color and in widescreen, with black-and-white scenes framed in the ‘Academy Ratio’ exploring the creative process, including recreations of important – but possibly apocryphal – interactions between the principal creatives. Anderson has flirted with framing devices and metatext plenty in the past, like the novelistic shapes of The Royal Tenenbaums or Fantastic Mr. Fox, or The Darjeeling Limited having an accompanying short, Hotel Chevalier, that is either a performance of a short story written by Jason Schwartzman’s character, or the real-life events that inspired it. In these later films, though, he’s gone deeper, fully embracing his Orson Welles sense of showmanship – the presenter in Asteroid City, played by Bryan Cranston, introduces us to the entire cast before the play begins, recalling the end of Citizen Kane or the spoken credits of Othello – and here, the main action of the play is in constant conversation with the ‘making-of’ framing. Anderson isn’t just asking us to remain acutely aware of the artifice of everything on screen, something he’s done to one degree or another for most of his career, but to see each on-screen figure as two people: The fictional ‘actor’ they are playing, and the part that fictional actor is performing. Implicitly, then, we are also aware of a third person – the actual actor from our reality. In this way, the action of the film isn’t so much what’s going on in ‘Asteroid City’ – the town, the play, or the movie – but what’s going on in the heads of these people who are writing, directing, and starring in it. Why tell a story like this – or tell a story at all – and what do we do when the art we make or participate in inevitably shines a light back upon us, as it always does?
The action in Asteroid City itself comes to involve contact with a quirky stop-motion alien, which means we can, amusingly, proclaim that Wes Anderson has now made something of a sci-fi film. Of course, the director does this entirely on his own terms. Asteroid City uses the idea of mankind’s first contact with extraterrestrial life in an almost entirely opposite way as most films on this subject. Instead of the alien’s arrival immediately and dramatically changing everything – throwing out all the characters know and shifting the stakes of their lives – it pointedly changes nothing. A person grieving their dead wife or mother – as several of the main characters are here – who meets an alien one day is still going to be in the process of grieving when they wake up the next morning; and they will still know nothing about the existential mysteries prompted by her death. Anderson’s vision of an alien encounter is ultimately about how little we know about anything, from what happens when we die, to why we feel the things we feel and why those feelings move us to do the things we do; the world is full of complexities and mysteries as dense and wondrous as meeting an extraterrestrial, and maybe the real impact of such an encounter would be to make those everyday mysteries feel suddenly less quotidian. The ultimate challenge of life may not be to find the answers to all the great questions that weigh us down on a daily basis, but to instead find comfort in the not knowing. And while we are all unlikely to meet an actual alien to prompt such introspection, Anderson suggests through the film’s nesting doll structure that art itself is the encounter that makes us appreciate the unknowability of those quotidian mysteries, and that in the making and dissemination of art, we can come to find that comfort with the cosmic mysteries of life.
Asteroid City features the biggest cast of Anderson’s career to date, though that’s been true of pretty much every film he’s made for a long while now; actors come into Anderson’s wheelhouse, and for the most part they never leave. He finds a place for all of them, sometimes miniscule but never unimportant, in the next project. Asteroid City is a true testament to the idea that there are no ‘small parts’ – Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Stephen Park, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, and other Anderson favorites all appear, sometimes in the briefest of roles, and I cannot imagine the movie without each of them. Similarly, newcomers to Anderson’s troupe include Steve Carrell, Hong Chau, and Margot Robbie, none of whom have much screentime, all of whom get a part tailor-made for them specifically. This is one of the things Anderson is best at; a theme I hit upon in each of my Anderson lectures this past month was the way he sees something in actors the industry may not have picked up on before, like the weighty, lived-in sadness of Bill Murray in Rushmore, or the gentleness of Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom. Here, I think that distinction goes most clearly to Scarlett Johansson, who worked with Anderson once before in a voice role in Isle of Dogs; here, she appears in live-action, and there is an approachable-yet-sad-yet-vividly-funny humanity to the movie star persona I found striking. Tom Hanks is also an Anderson newcomer, and this is the first time in a while the icon hasn’t been off in la la land doing weird accents and hammy gesticulations; he’s profoundly human, as Hanks has always been at his best, and which it seems it took Anderson to coax back out of him. There is also a fantastic set of young actors here all doing winning, delightful work, including Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, and Sophia Lillis, once again proving Anderson is one of the great directors of kids working today.
Our star, if the film has one, is Jason Schwartzman, the actor whose career was birthed by Anderson’s second feature – and one of my personal favorites – Rushmore. I saw a tweet from Vikram Murthi a few weeks ago saying that for “anyone who has anything invested in Jason Schwartzman, anyone who has seen him grow up on screen, the last half hour [of Asteroid City] is lethal. Max Fischer grew up.” I respectfully borrow his words because I don’t think I can say it any better. There are few if any movie characters I see myself in more than Max Fischer, few performances that resonate with my lived adolescent experience as Schwartzman in Rushmore, and there is absolutely a beautiful, profound link from that movie to this one, some kind of quiet, poignant closure on the emotional turmoil that drove that kid to endlessly create, even when it destroyed his life and the lives of those around him. Maybe closure is the wrong word – perhaps it is a cathartic acceptance that such closure will never come.
Asteroid City is a lovely movie. I don’t know yet where I would place it in Anderson’s canon, except to say it is an immediately indelible part of it. For the first hour or so, this one did not ‘wow’ me in the way Grand Budapest or French Dispatch did, but its final act snuck up on me as hard as anything Anderson’s ever done. Of course, his films are ones that tend to grow and change with me as time goes by; I would have described Moonrise Kingdom in similar fashion 10 years ago, and today I think it is one of the major masterpieces of its decade. Better just to live in the moment, then, and say that this film feels special, and is worth experiencing, and rewards an open and inquisitive mind. It is, in short, a Wes Anderson film, and that’s still cause for celebration.
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