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Asteroid City

With stars, style and a bittersweet search for meaning in a small desert town, Wes Anderson makes another meticulous and witty delight.
By Sarah Ward
August 04, 2023
By Sarah Ward
August 04, 2023

In 1954, one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest thrillers peeked through a rear window. In Wes Anderson's highly stylised, symmetrical and colour-saturated vision of 1955 in Asteroid City, a romance springs almost solely through two fellow holes in the wall. Sitting behind one is actor Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson, Black Widow), who visibly recalls Marilyn Monroe. Peering through the opposing space is newly widowed war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse), who takes more than a few cues from James Dean. The time isn't just 1955 in the filmmaker's latest stellar masterpiece, but September that year, a month that would end with Dean's death in a car crash. Racing through the movie's eponymous setting — an 87-person slice of post-war midwest Americana with a landscape straight out of a western, the genre that was enjoying its golden age at the time — are cops and robbers speeding and careening in their vehicles.

Meticulousness layered upon meticulousness has gleamed like the sun across Anderson's repertoire since 1996's Bottle Rocket launched the writer/director's distinctive aesthetic flair; "Anderson-esque" has long become a term. Helming his 11th feature with Asteroid City, he's as fastidious and methodical in his details upon details as ever — more so, given that each successive movie keeps feeling like Anderson at his most Anderson — but all of those 50s pop-culture shoutouts aren't merely film-loving, winking-and-nodding quirks. Within this picture's world, as based on a story conjured up with Roman Coppola (The French Dispatch), Asteroid City isn't actually a picture. "It is an imaginary drama created expressly for the purposes of this broadcast. The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication," a Playhouse 90-style host (Bryan Cranston, Better Call Saul) informs. So, it's a fake play turned into a play for a TV presentation, behind-the-scenes glimpses and all. There Anderson is, being his usual ornate and intricate self, and finding multiple manners to explore art, authenticity, and the emotions found in and processed through works of creativity.

Those windows that Midge and Augie keep chatting through belong to neighbouring bungalows in the only motel in Asteroid City, the town. (Not only is the setting not actually a city, but the asteroid that caused its famous crater back in 3007 BC is really a meteorite.) Although the pair arrive at the isolated desert spot as strangers, their respective kids in tow, they don't remain that way for long. Midge's daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards, Call Jane) and Augie's son Woodrow (Jake Ryan, Uncut Gems) are among the star attendees at a Junior Stargazer convention, each being feted by the US Military for their scientific inventions. As the kids talk and cultivate crushes, so do the adults. Those windows aren't just one of Asteroid City's several framing devices, either. Visually, Anderson reminds that we're all our own separate boxes, interacting with other separate boxes. He also ponders art's many boxes — screens included, naturally — in a film that dispenses everything from martinis to real estate from boxy vending machines.

Each tiny speck of Asteroid City is that elaborate, intelligent and attentively chosen. Amid such diligent minutiae, however, Anderson goes out-of-this-world on emotion. Warm, insightful and funny, his new film features all of his hallmarks — think: the jam-packed starry cast spanning almost every famous face that's ever been in his frames, but adding more just-as-well-known talents; the exquisitely balanced compositions; the playfulness and whimsy of its on-screen world; the deadpan humour; the melancholy — and also contemplates life, death, grief, alienation, loneliness, love, dreams, connection, hope, wonder and what matters when we're all tiny specks existing ever-so-fleetingly in an expansive universe. As the filmmaker's first release made in pandemic times (The French Dispatch was shot in 2018 and 2019, initially due to premiere at Cannes 2020, then delayed to late 2021 when the globe shut down), it's also a clever, canny and brilliantly comic musing on the unexpected shaking up daily life, the ins and outs of quarantine and lockdown, and humanity's coping mechanisms when everything radically shifts and turns.

Doing the writing in Asteroid City's boxed-in black-and-white segments: playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery), who immediately takes a shine to actor Jones Hall (also Schwartzman), casting him as Augie. Doing the directing: Schubert Green (Adrien Brody, Poker Face), who moves in backstage when his wife Polly (Hong Chau, The Whale) leaves him. Life in monochrome is messy; this is when method acting reigned supreme, too, and Earp and Green's cast have much to draw upon. Of course, while existence within the colourful widescreen sections that represent the play itself might look neat, it's also anything but. As General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright, The Batman) oversees the stargazers — and astronomer Dr Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton, Three Thousand Years of Longing) has them looking up — there's loss, romance, a teacher (Maya Hawke, Stranger Things) with inquisitive pupils, cowboys a-singing (such as High Desert's Rupert Friend and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker), ashes in Tupperware, a starstruck father-in-law (Tom Hanks, A Man Called Otto) and otherworldly interlopers.

Anderson also finds time for Steve Carell (The Patient), Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic World Dominion), Tony Revolori (Servant), Liev Schreiber (A Small Light), Matt Dillon (Proxima), Willem Dafoe (The Northman) and more to pop up. (Much of life's chaos is bodies, faces and lots of them, his films constantly note.) And, with both Margot Robbie (Barbie) and mushroom clouds making an appearance, he even goes all Barbenheimer. (As Christopher Nolan obviously recently demonstrated, the billowing results of atom-bomb tests instantly put human fragility into context.) Asteroid City sports an Anderson retrospective as well, with precocious kids à la Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom, trains traversing plains like The Darjeeling Limited, family woes as The Royal Tenenbaums perfected, an insular setting akin to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch's nesting structure. Never one to hold back, the present most-aped and -memed director levels up everything, including the crater-sized impact.

That Anderson's movies are impeccably styled and scored can now almost go without saying. Back from The French Dispatch, his regular cinematographer Robert D Yeoman and composer Alexandre Desplat make every moment sparkle and twinkle with beauty. That his casts understand the Anderson method is also that self-evident now. Here, wading through yearning, mourning, disappointments and the unknown, Schwartzman and Johansson in particular are astronomically spectacular. Asteroid City assembles all the Anderson pieces that audiences expect exactly so — and repeatedly probes what we see, feel and discover when we surrender to art or anything beyond ourselves, his with its giddy, gleeful, oh-so-gorgeous artifice over naturalism as well. He keeps his audience staring at boxes because, whether windows or Broadway or screens, they reflect living. "You can't wake up if you don't fall asleep," Asteroid City's play actors chant offstage; that you can't appreciate existence's wonders and mysteries if you don't look for them, be it IRL or through the stories and works and pictures that reflect our lives, the film doesn't utter aloud but conveys equally as spiritedly, lovingly and rousingly.

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