A film review by Craig J. Koban October 20, 2023

ASTEROID CITY jj
   

2023, PG-13, 105 mins.

Jason Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck / Jones Hall  /  Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell / Mercedes Ford  /  Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak  /  Jake Ryan as Woodrow Steenbeck  /  Jeffrey Wright as General Grif Gibson  /  Tilda Swinton as Dr. Hickenlooper  /  Bryan Cranston as The Host  /  Willem Dafoe as Saltzburg Keitel  /  Edward Norton as Conrad Earp  /  Adrien Brody as Schubert Green  /  Liev Schreiber as J.J. Kellogg  /  Hope Davis as Sandy Borden  /  Stephen Park as Roger Cho  /  Rupert Friend as Montana  /  Maya Hawke as June Douglas  /  Steve Carell as The Motel Manager  /  Matt Dillon as Hank  /  Hong Chau as Polly Green  /  Margot Robbie as The Actress  /  Jeff Goldblum as The Extra-Terrestrial  /  Tony Revolori as Aide-de-Camp  /  Grace Edwards as Dinah Campbell  /  Aristou Meehan as Clifford  /  Sophia Lillis as Shelly  /  Ethan Josh Lee as Ricky  /  Fisher Stevens as Detective #1  /  Preston Mota as Dwight  /  Jack Eyman as Kim  /  Bob Balaban as Larkings Executive

Directed by Wes Anderson  /  Written by Anderson and Roman Coppola

Watching ASTEROID CITY - like many of Wes Anderson's previous films - is akin to looking at a meticulously constructed model set where every conceivable building block has been painstakingly thought through, connected, and executed into its final form.  

This is the 54-year-old director's eleventh film, and it just might be one of his most gorgeously realized, in a pastel-hued storybook kind of manner.   The film's titular town - shown in a bravura tracking shot that mixes practical elements and what I'm assuming are visual effects - is literally in the middle of nowhere and is comprised of one identifiable tourist attraction: a meteorite crater.  

Oh, Asteroid City is also home to an old timely gas station, an observatory, diner, motel, and abandoned highway ramp that was apparently halted mid-construction and now just...sits there.  

It's also on the outskirts of frequent atomic bomb tests (mushroom clouds appear rather unassumingly in the distance, which the residents usually shrug off) and many random police chases race through the town (which are also shrugged off).  It'll soon become home to the usual motley crew of eclectic Anderson-ian characters as well that come to visit it...as well as an alien.  

Within seconds of watching a Wes Anderson film, you know that you're watching a Wes Anderson film.  Weirdness aside, ASTEROID CITY is beautiful to look at with vibrant orange desert vistas surrounding the town on the ground, the impossibly blue skies above it, and the bucolic quaintness of the businesses and buildings that occupy it.  There's always an astonishing attention to detail in Anderson's films and his aesthetic formalism makes every one of his efforts stand uniquely on their own.  ASTEROID CITY, true to its form, matches its visual splendor by featuring an absolute embarrassment of actor riches: Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Tilda Swinton, Hope Davis, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Dillon, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe and Jason Schwatzman, just to name a few, all make either sizeable or minor appearances here.  Anderson's stylistic trappings sometimes have the negative side effect of self-indulgently swallowing up his films whole and leave elements like character dynamics, drama, comedy, and story on the sidelines.  I've championed some Anderson pictures as the best of their respective years, whereas others have left me impressed with their construction, but emotionally cold and distant.  ASTEROID CITY is of the latter variety.  I loved experiencing this film's multi self-contained worlds, but I never really latched onto to anyone or anything that happened within them.

I loved the film's opening, though, which shows Anderson - as he has done many recent times before - playing around with aspect ratios and cinematography.  We're introduced to a faux-made-for-TV production narrated by Bryan Crantson, who informs the viewers that they are about to be shown a stage production of ASTEROID CITY (this story within a story is shot in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1 and in black and white).  The film then shifts into the theatrical production's actual story, and it's at this point that Anderson opens up the screen to a widescreen 2.35:1 ratio and into a hyper saturated color palette that harkens back to Technicolor classics of yesteryear.  The rest of the film segues back and forth between the TV broadcast and the story of Asteroid City itself, with all being done with a retro-50s flair to the settings, production design, costuming, and characters.  The first of many (and I do mean many) characters that we're introduced to that visit this small desert town is Augie (Anderson mainstay Schwartzman), a photojournalist with his children who's trying to use the trip to find the courage later to tell them that their mother has recently passed.  When the family car breaks down, Augie is forced to call his semi-estranged father-in-law, Stanley (Hanks), for a ride, but a long wait will be on the horizon, which leads to Augie and his kids exploring the sights and sounds of the town.

 

 

From this point onwards, ASTEROID CITY tiptoes back and forth between the TV broadcast play and the story itself, with the latter focusing on the creators of the production, like the play's writer, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), the actors and director, Schubert Green (Adrien Brody).  As the umbrella story within a story shifts back to Asteroid City we learn why Augie journeyed to the town in the first place (his son is about to receive a Junior Stargazer award at the astronomy convention being held there).  Concurrent to this is the arrival of a visiting actress, Midge Campbell (Johansson), who also has a Junior Stargazer daughter.  We meet other convention attendees as well and a country band led by Montana (Rupert Friend) to add more character density to the already densely packed story.  We also meet Hickenlooper (Swinton), a local astronomer, the motel manager (Carell), the town's pragmatic mechanic (Dillon), and General Grif Gibson (Wright), who's one of the speakers at the convention.  Crashing everyone's stay is the appearance of a UFO and a close encounter with an alien (done in sublime stop motion animation), that forces the General and U.S. government to quarantine Asteroid City until further notice in hopes of covering the whole affair up to the public.   

I can see where Anderson wants to go in ASTEROID CITY.  He obviously wants to pay homage to the mythology built around reported real world extraterrestrial and UFO sightings that have littered the Southwestern U.S. in decades past while delving into post-war Atomic era America of the 50s.  Contextually, he's also diving into the behind the scenes machinations of the experimental performance art and TV scene of that period in question.  That, and the overarching subplot involving the residents and visitors of ASTEROID CITY having to go into lockdown by higher authorities is probably the closest thing we'll have to Anderson making a COVID-themed production.  I'm not sure if the film really captures the sheer vastness of that very real health crisis, but there's some commentary to be had here in the way the story shows government incompetence and scientists and experts being brushed away.  The alien's arrival is essentially a plot device to keep all of these kooky personas in one confined space, and perhaps the closest manner that this film approaches some genuinely heart wrenching drama is the sad ordeal of Augie trying to drum up the courage and the right manner to tell his children - who are now trapped with him in the town and with nowhere to go - that they'll never seen their mother again.

That's also one of ASTEROID CITY's bigger problems, though, in that Anderson never really fully fleshes out Augie's attempts to navigate his own grief over his wife passing away, because we're essentially and aggressively snapped away from him and to one weird character after another that are - in their own way - trying to vye for attention.  There are other characters dealing with sadness and loss in the story, yes, but so many of the performances here are so oddly stilted and mannered that it becomes increasingly hard to buy into their respective concerns and frailties.  Even more distractingly, Anderson frequently shifts away from those storylines and back into the world of the TV play production, which honestly could have been a whole film in itself altogether (although I really laughed hard at one perfectly executed sight gag of Crantson's TV narrator accidentally leaving his black and white surroundings and crossing into the desert town itself).    ASTEROID CITY is a fidgety and busy picture...maybe too much so for its own good.  There's so much on screen here that it overwhelms any meaningful connections we want to form with these characters.  And even when Anderson tries to settle into the story threads and people that occupy them, his overall approach is meanderingly episodic.  And that's a shame.   

Still, ASTEROID CITY, as alluded to earlier, is an unendingly pleasing visual feast for the eyes.  Asteroid City itself never once feels like a real rural town, per se, but it feels thoroughly lived-in and Anderson has a hyper-fixation on environmental and set detail that's pretty second to none.  I've always applauded him for the intense tactile and hand crafted quality of his engineered worlds in these films, and they're done so in a way that never feels like the obtrusive by-product of CGI overkill or digital tinkering (I'm sure some of those tricks were utilized here, but they never draw attention to themselves).  There's a definitive Anderson formula at play in his pictures: the stunning production design, the obsessively centered framing of shots, a relative who's-who of Hollywood A-listers that are obviously working for scale, the melding of absurd comedy and dark pathos, and a bizarre story that brings all of these elements together.  It's hard not to marvel with a legitimate sensation of awe and wonder when it comes to Anderson's fertile imagination exploding on screen, but ASTEROID CITY nevertheless left me feeling indifferent in the end.  Its dramatic elements are fairly inert, and when the comedic elements try to do the remaining heavy lifting they mostly fall flat (this might be one of Anderson's least funny films).  I wished that there was more method to his madness here.  

Anderson's early films pushed me away, but then I gave way to drawing myself closer to them with a real admiration for the scope of their unique artistry and storytelling (MOONRISE KINGDOM and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL remain his greatest achievements).  ASTEROID CITY is a bit of a regressive minded letdown, for my tastes.  

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