Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City is earning mixed reviews. Is it not up to the usual Anderson standard?
PLOT: In a remote desert town, Junior Stargazer’s convention attendees find themselves locked down after encountering an alien life-form.
REVIEW: One has to assume that Wes Anderson‘s Asteroid City is a product of lockdown. Given that many of us spent months (or even years) of our lives isolated thanks to the pandemic, it’s inevitable that this would rub off on the work of some of our most accomplished directors. Asteroid City isn’t about the pandemic, but there are certainly moments that will resonate for all, although Anderson, as always, can’t resist defying expectations. The Junior Stargazer’s plot, which dominates the movie, is a film-within-a-film for Anderson, whose story is a lot more complicated than the early trailers revealed. The result is a bold effort it may take a few viewings to truly appreciate, as it was probably the first Wes Anderson movie I’ve ever seen that I didn’t immediately love upon its first viewing.
Having only seen it once, I’m tempted to say that Anderson got too clever for his own good here, framing the film in an unnecessary way. It’s hard to explain the framing device clearly – but here goes nothing: the movie is about a TV anthology show from the fifties that dramatizes the creation of a famous play, and the dramatized scenes we’re seeing are the film’s main plot. Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson are playing actors playing roles within the film, with a few interesting tells sprinkled throughout the film. These include Schwartzman’s fake beard and clipped manner of speaking, which he’s criticized for by the play’s director, Adrien Brody, in the scenes dramatizing the “making of.”
While this all likely sounds confusing, the movie does a much better job of delineating the different elements than I have, with the TV dramatization stuff in black and white (and a TV-style 1:33:1 aspect ratio). The Asteroid City stuff is in blazing colour and CinemaScope style widescreen, which makes it look like a colour movie from the fifties, when all parts of the story take place.
My issue with this framing device is that it kept me from entirely investing in the Asteroid City parts of the movie, which were good enough to stand on their own. While I chuckled at the occasional bit, such as Bryan Cranston, who plays the Rod Serling-esque host of the anthology show, randomly showing up in the background of shots funny, or Margot Robbie in a cameo as a character cut for time, overall, I’m not sure the device was worth it.
It’s too bad because the main part of the plot, which takes place in the isolated Asteroid City, is good. This little town is overseen by Steve Carell, a motel owner who sells bits of land via a vending machine to tourists. This tiny town is the setting for the Junior Stargazer’s convention, which the children of our main characters attend. There’s Jason Schwartzman as a war photographer whose wife has just died, and is planning to pawn his kids off on his father-in-law (Tom Hanks). Then there’s Scarlett Johansson as a movie star using the trip to bond with her daughter and finding herself drawn to Schwartzman when they wind up locked down together. The town is built around a mysterious asteroid. During the convention, an alien appears to reclaim the artifact, leading to the military, commanded by Jeffrey Wright’s character, ordering everyone to be locked down.
This may boast Anderson’s biggest cast ever, but most of the roles are relatively minor. The movie is built around two couples – Schwartzman and Johansson, and then their kids, played by Jake Ryan and Grace Edwards. Schwartzman’s strange performance takes a bit of getting used to, as the framing device makes it clear that he’s doing “a lot,” but everyone is top-notch as usual. Tom Hanks is having a whale of a time in his first Wes Anderson movie, with him, Steve Carell, Margot Robbie, and other newcomers like Matt Dillon, Maya Hawke and Rupert Friend all fitting well into his world despite small parts. A bunch of Anderson regulars, such as the ever-present Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Adrien Brody, also show up. Everyone is good, but, again, thanks to the movie-within-a-movie style, it feels more cluttered than needed.
However, like many of the best directors, Anderson’s movies sometimes need to be watched more than once to be appreciated. I’m inclined to say it’s his worst movie, but even his “worst” is still pretty damn good and better than a lot of other movies out there. It will be interesting to revisit this movie and see if it improves, as I suspect it might.
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/asteroid-city-review/