Asteroid City

Asteroid City
Asteroid City
Genre: Dramedy
Director: Wes Anderson
Release Year: 2023
Runtime: 1h 45min

You kind of know what you’re in for with a Wes Anderson movie. Though it does seem his tics have gotten more and more pronounced over time. You can see the dramatic evolution from his humble Bottle Rocket beginnings to this film, Asteroid City. His most Wes Anderson movie ever. So controlled. So twee. So absolutely boxed-in both visually and performance-wise. To the point where his style and stilted approach come right up the point of the many Anderson parodies that have been executed over the years. But, still… There is no other filmmaker out there who can create these works of art the way he can. In such a distinct style with such a unique point of view. With such immense talent in front of the camera.

Of course all of this doesn’t necessarily equal a good film. Or a coherent one. And while Asteroid City certainly looks very cool with its over-saturated pastel colors and bizarre mixture of real locations and what look to be prop backgrounds, it’s a bit of a quagmire narratively. Not that it’s incredibly dissimilar from previous themes in Anderson’s films, but he really went for some more narrative ambiguity and sort of meta-ness that I don’t recall running into previously. Not as if he hasn’t mixed genres before, or mixed media (plays and films) in his other works, but this one does this whole thing where, for instance, Jason Schwartzman is playing an actor named Jones Hall. Who is, in turn, playing a character in the filmed version of the play, Asteroid City, named Augie Steenbeck. While also interacting outside of the world of Asteroid City with the playwright of the Asteroid City play named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). All of which is narrated in a different aspect ratio in black and white (as if we’re watching this whole thing on a 1955 television set) by an unnamed television host played by Bryan Cranston. Got that? Yeah, it’s confusing. And it’s not as if I don’t appreciate the effort of layering in reality and non-reality and fourth-wall breaking and all that, but it just didn’t quite hang together the way he probably intended it to.

Plot devices and narrative structure aside, there are certainly some good things going on in this film. So much so, in fact, that I almost feel like it merits a second watch. I think that might straighten out some of the head-spinning layers of reality and allow me to focus on what’s actually going on in the film. The thing is, I think there are several things going on. Like so many movies these days, it’s about processing grief. We see that in the Jones Hall / Augie Steenbeck character, who is dealing with the death of a loved one in real life and whose character is struggling to tell his four children that their mother has recently died. And I’m going to say — mostly because this is Anderson and he cares about things like this — that there’s some meta commentary about the acting process and the whole stage play versus filmed media thing going on. I couldn’t tell you what exactly any of this is, but it would be like him to put that at the heart of his insular world. Now, where the alien visitation and government secrecy stuff comes in is a total mystery. Because I really don’t think that’s the world in which Anderson travels. Nor a subject he really cares to discuss based on his filmography. Nope, he is much more old-school academic and familial in his themes. And this is that. Just weirder. With more oddball CGI and/or stop motion stuff (aside from Fantastic Mr. Fox, of course).

There are some great performances from the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Adrien Brody in the film, and a ton of stars in smaller parts that are a delight to see. But it’s obvious that they are all acting in a Wes Anderson movie. If any one of these actors showed up elsewhere and put on a performance in the same manner as they did in this film, they’d be instantly fired. There is no looseness to any of it. Clearly no ad-libbing. And while it has the air of a stage play, and its kind of mannered way of speaking and projecting, there’s just something specifically Anderson about the performances. Something homogenous about the personalities and delivery. Like I mentioned; very controlled. Which gives his films and the actors in it this very specific feel that he’s obviously going for. One that even Matt Dillon is roped into. Such that when you do get a little warmth and a little humanity from an actor, it is pretty striking. And can be effective when put in the hands of the likes of Tom Hanks. A man who has made a career of making you feel something, because he’s Tom Muthafukin’ Hanks. So I kind of get the holding back. I get the manipulation of our emotions, only to come in with the velvet hammer of Hanks’ grieving father and loving grandfather character (despite the fact we’re initially led to believe he’s a fat-cat jerkface), but you have to know and understand Anderson’s approach beforehand or you might find the acting styles to be strange and off-putting compared to your usual dramedy.

This is all to say that I had mixed feelings about the film. It felt at times like Anderson was trying his hand at a little Charlie Kaufman, Adaptation action. Which is not normally his wheelhouse. But like any film written by Kaufman — and Anderson, frankly — they tend to reveal things to you upon second watch. So that’s what I’ll do. But until then, I remain on the fence about the whole affair. It feels like it’s trying too hard in places. And ends up too clever by half. But maybe I’ll find the heart I felt was missing the first go ’round, which for all his stylized whiteness, Anderson still manages to sneak into most of his films in surprising ways.