Pastel colour schemes. Perfectly centred framing. Peppering of pretentious notions. Yep, we got another Wes Anderson talkie on our hands, and once again the stylistic filmmaker has managed to ‘out-Wes’ himself with his latest anthological meta-narrative with an all-star line up of his Hollywood favourites, Asteroid City.
Asteroid City is a fictional desert town (and a neighbouring town to an atomic bomb testing site) that hosts a Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet camp in which the brightest young minds are accompanied by their families for a week of Earth-based space exploration and competitive technological rivalry. Intellectuals, scientists and the military all play host to the up-and-coming world changers, hoping to hone their ideas into the machines of the future… or weapons for the United States Army, who just so happen to own the rights to anything these kids make. Alongside their uniquely dysfunctional families, this eclectic group of oddballs have their world flipped upside down (but still centre framed, of course) when a life changing event occurs right in front of their eyes, sending the camp into quirky chaos.
However, not everything in Asteroid City is as it seems, because ‘Asteroid City’ is revealed to the film watching audience by The Host (Bryan Cranston) as a filmic imagining of a play written by renowned playwright, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). The play is presented in a widescreen, technicolour dreamscape, while Earp’s creation of the play, from conception to production, is intercut with a black-and-white, compressed aspect ratio, often strung together by title cards signifying the beginning of a new act, or set of scenes.
The all-star cast assembled by Anderson also play both their characters within ‘Asteroid City’, and their real life acting counterparts in “real life”. Veteran Anderson collaborator Jason Schwartzman plays Augie Steenback, a recently widowed war-time photographer and father to Junior Stargazer, Woodrow (Jake Ryan). Schwartzman also plays the actor playing Augie in ‘Asteroid City’, who is an actor trying to find their breakthrough role while struggling to find the purpose of Augie’s actions within the play. In some ways, it’s a more sincere attempt at Robert Downey Jr. ‘s Kirk Lazarus in 2008s Tropic Thunder (“I’m a dude, playing a dude, disguised as another dude!”).
Fellow dual role performances included Scarlett Johannson as a famed TV star and object of the male gaze, Steve Carrell as Asteroid City’s only hotel manager, Jeffrey Wright as the no-nonsense nonsensical General, Liev Schriber as a disgruntled chain-smoking parent, Maya Hawke as a school teacher, Matt Dillon as the town mechanic, Tilda Swinton as the excitable space scientist, and Tom Hanks as the loathsome father of Augie.
Boasting a cast this size, it’s no surprise that the performances are all pretty damn good across the board. Newcomers to Anderson’s monotone, dry dialogue delivering characters such as Carrell, Hawke and Hanks seamlessly adapt their acting styles to fit in with the Anderson aesthetic. The highlight being Hanks, who’s deadpan performance of an emotionally distant father figure hilariously shows him in a role that reminds audiences what a comedic presence he can be.
The returning players, such as Schwartzman, Swinton and Wright continue to double down on the emotionally stunted nature of the performances in a way that seems too easy for them now, like they are returning for the 19th season of a television show, only the characters names have changed from series to series. In some ways, it can feel like watching the real life people just moseying around on screen with very little immersion into the characters they’re playing, which is also an all-over issue with Anderson’s screenplay in general.
Asteroid City feels like it is about nothing at all. That’s not to say that every piece of art ever created needs to have a point, but certain narrative elements to Anderson’s script feel so aimless within the larger scope of the story, that it’s impossible for those scenes to not stick out as unnecessary. The montoned barrier of the characters’ demeanour doesn’t allow for emotional engagement from an audience level (or at least, not in a way that Anderson has been able to pull off before in films like The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel). So, when the heartstrings are grabbed in an attempt to pull, or any sense of genuine human connection is presented (especially between Augie and Midge) it falls flat and tonally mismatches from the absurdity of the film’s overarching story.
This feeling is also apparent with characters such as Maya Hawke’s school teacher and her 10 students, who alongside a stranded country band, add no extra substance to the story, even though there is an argument to be made about whether these characters together hold the title of funniest moment in the film. The same can be said about all the Conrad Earp storyline. In similar vein to The French DIspatch, the production of ‘Asteroid City’ is a very well produced narrative thread that ultimately holds the core themes of the film in it’s scenes, but there is an abruptness to these moments that doesn’t always work with the flow and pacing of the film as a whole.
At this point in Anderson’s career, the visual aesthetic of his films, whether it’s the deliberately contrasting colour pallets or jolting camera movements, have become the bare foundations of his directing style. Anderson isn’t reinventing his wheel, but it’s impossible to deny that he is honing that craft and continuously finding ways to make it even more dynamic than his last film.
Speaking of, whereas The French Dispatch lent itself to perhaps be a little too self-indulgent of Anderson’s habits, Asteroid City finds a way to use his visual strengths to enhance the heightened feeling of this story, and is arguably one of the stronger elements of the film itself. There is a warm feeling to Asteroid City itself, and it vividly pops out onto the screen. But then the coldness of Conrad Earp’s storyline has a cold, distanced feeling with the more artsy and harshly lit black-and-white scenes. Plus, Anderson’s use of miniatures and even animation in this film give his quirky stylings that extra cherry on top.
There’s no denying that Wes Anderson has found his niche, he did many films ago. But his ability to continue one-upping himself in a visual sense inside the tight box that he has fit himself into in a directing sense, is nothing short of genius filmmaking. However, his sensibilities as a storyteller often fall second to the incredible visual nature of his work, and unfortunately a pretty looking movie can only do so much to feel interesting for 104 minutes. Despite a great aesthetic, humorous moments, and all around solid performances, Asteroid City may win over Anderson die-hards, but does little to fix the issues of Anderson’s previous filmmaking faults.
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