Take Me Down to the ‘Asteroid City’

Wes Anderson pays loving homage to the 1950s

There are no asteroids in ‘Asteroid City,’ nor are there really any cities. To be fair, there’s a meteoroid that serves, in a way, as the film’s McGuffin. But it hasn’t been an asteroid since at least “3007 BC” when it impacted in the sands of the titular Desert West outpost. The only city Wes Anderson gives us are hints of New York in black-and-white, as seen from the inside of an actors’ studio run by the legendary Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe) or from the balcony behind a theatre running a production of ‘Asteroid City’ directed by the visionary Schubert Green (Adrien Brody).

ASTEROID CITY ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Jeffrey Wright, Matt Dillon, Tilda Swinton, Rupert Friend, Seu Jorge, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Steve Carrell, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Maya Hawke, Hong Chau, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Rita Wilson
Running time: 105 min

Ah, so it’s a movie within a play! Almost. It’s a movie of a play on a Playhouse 90-style TV show about the making of a play called ‘Asteroid City,’ which the narrator of the TV show (Bryan Cranston) tells us doesn’t exist. The movie doesn’t really exist either. We’re watching the play, mostly. If all of this sounds frustrating to you and you’re thinking, “Grrr, that whimsical Wes Anderson guy does vex me so,” then lop a couple of stars off my review and go catch a Spiderverse, Flash, or a Transformer. You have way more chance of actual asteroid v. city action in any of those.

‘Asteroid City’– I love the initials for a summer movie in Texas–begins in the aspect ratio of a 1950s TV show. Boxed in there is the mustached narrator (Cranston) who introduces us to famed western playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). They proceed to literally set the bare stage for us, introducing the principal players of the play-slash-movie we are about to see: Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman) as war photographer Augie Steenbeck, Mercedes Ford (Scarlett Johansson) as troubled bombshell actress Midge Campbell, etc. You get the picture. Most of the story is in the desert but it’s really happening on stage. Which is why the chonky rock formations of Asteroid City look like moveable sets that could be hauled back out for a production of Oklahoma.

As for the story itself, it’s a bit of a shaggy dog tale. Precocious nerdy teens, military men bestowing scientific medals, and singing cowboys mass for effect on a dusty town hosting a Junior Stargazer Convention and become stuck there when an actual alien shows up, sparking a government quarantine. Augie Steenbeck (Schwartzman) has been putting off telling his kids about their mothers’ recent death. None of the other characters comes loaded with as much of a back story. They’re all just kind of there, with their scientific inventions, kitschy western songs, and World War II PTSD. That’s going to be a problem for a lot of people with ‘Asteroid City.’

The stakes are a possible alien invasion of Earth or the repression of America’s citizens by their own government. But since we never know the principal characters beyond their idiosyncrasies–the motel manager (Steve Carrell) sells land and martinis from a vending machine, the teacher (Maya Hawke) who relies on order can never seem to keep her students quiet for more than a few seconds–these stakes have no real heft. But ‘Asteroid City’ isn’t trying for the narrative chonk of something like Bad Day at Black Rock. Anderson’s real concerns are back in the black-and-white world.

Occasionally, an actor will walk through a hidden door in a colorful boulder and discuss their character with the director of the play. Or Anderson will simply whisk us back to the western playwright Earp, in a black box theatre, trying to work out how to stage the next scene with all of the actors. Similar to the framing device he used in Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson pays homage to the creation of stories he enjoys, except this time the hat tip is toward Stella Adler, Marlon Brando, and the New School.

If all of that sounds like too much, ‘Asteroid City’ delivers most of what we expect from a Wes Anderson film. The sets and production design are meticulous, whimsical, and funny. The dialogue is mostly deadpan and frequently hilarious. Jeffrey Wright’s five-star general delivers a great “speech” that any general worth their stars would never give, and gets into a grudge match with a science teen that almost made me laugh-spit Diet Coke through my nose. The kids steal most of the scenes, even the ones with a surprisingly engaging animated roadrunner. Look closely and you’ll catch Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker as one of the singing cowboys.

I’ve been a fan of Wes Anderson’s movies ever since I saw Bottle Rocket for the first time. I went into that heist picture with the expectation that, like 65 percent of movies in 1996, it would be a Tarantino ripoff. It wasn’t, and I found myself shook by that oddball little movie, as I frequently do with most of his films. I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about how and why we tell stories, what stories are worth revisiting, and whether the practice of storytelling itself is even useful.

Despite a kind of weightlessness to the events in Asteroid City, the movie speaks directly to those thoughts. It’s not lightweight, though its characters may sometimes seem that way, and it’s not aloof even if it feels like the characters are delivering some of its lines feel like with a knowing wink. There’s always a joy to Anderson’s films that I find moving, and that tends to be missing in most big tentpole movies. ‘Asteroid City’ is precisely the kind of movie I want to see in a season when studies are loading their movie releases with CGI impact craters.

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Jonpaul Henry Guinn

Jonpaul Henry Guinn is a freelance writer, Jeopardy also-ran, pub quiz host, and U.S. army veteran. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he oversees staffing and training for Geeks Who Drink.

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