Wes Anderson’s "Asteroid City" opens this weekend. It’s a film about a TV program about a play within a play set in a small desert town during a stargazing event.
I have been a fan of Anderson's work from the early days of "Bottle Rocket" and "Rushmore." But "Asteroid City" feels like someone asked Anderson to make the most Wes Anderson film he could imagine and this is the result.
So we get something that is gorgeous to look at and meticulously crafted down to the last grain of sand. Yet it also feels oddly distant and cold. Perhaps that is deliberate in a sort of Brechtian way. Anderson crafts the narrative structure as a 1950s-looking black-and-white TV program with Bryan Cranston as a Rod Serling-esque narrator, presenting us with a playwright (Edward Norton) who is crafting a play about a very peculiar event that happens in the desert at the site of a centuries-old meteor crater. The story also involves a group of junior stargazers who are all precocious scientists.
The film moves back and forth through the different layers of narrative, sometimes with the characters breaking a fourth wall in one dimension to enter another. It's sometimes clever, sometimes funny but always self-aware in that particular Anderson deadpan manner.
Like the Coen Brothers, Anderson is a filmmaker who imprints every frame with his unique vision and sense of craft. Like Peter Greenaway ("The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover"), he has a very precise visual style that tries to put a kind of mathematical order on the chaos of life. Note how many things in Anderson's desert town are defined by numbers, from population to motel rooms to how an extraterrestrial might view a meteorite.
Jason Schwartzman, who plays the grief-stricken Auggie, has worked with Anderson since the director's sophomore feature, "Rushmore."
"I think any sense of order is done with the knowledge that life is chaotic and that therein lies the whole part of, like the Adrien Brody character says in the movie, 'Just keep doing it,'" Schwartzman said. "It's like it's going to be controllable at times and uncontrollable at times. And I think of it as like a choreographer with rhythmic dance, people flipping and catching. You want the person who's in charge of that to make sure you're on this piece of tape when that person comes flipping down, because they need you to catch them. It's putting order on something to make it more chaotic."
And, for this film, Anderson throws in a distinct Road Runner cartoon vibe mixed with Buster Keaton then mixed with John Ford's "Monument Valley." Once again, it's layers. But Anderson exerts his control over the comic anarchy by creating a set where everything has been created and designed. Nothing is real. He gives us a clear sense of the environment by providing a 360-degree pan that shows us the entire terrain, but then there are such inexplicable things as a freeway ramp going nowhere and a police chase that never resolves.
There are moments that feel casually profound as characters deal with grief and loss, as well as the creative process. But I also wonder if I am searching for something profound in what might just be a postmodernist joke Anderson has created to amuse himself. We see a mushroom cloud of a nuclear test, and I wonder if it is meant to be a silly gag, like Wile E. Coyote blowing up, that is not meant to be taken seriously — or something more thematically ominous for anyone thinking about the history of government nuclear tests. The fact that I’m not sure is both frustrating and intriguing.
Here is a tiny point that epitomizes my confusion about Anderson. There is a briefly seen character, a soldier whose name is not given or I did not catch, who has long black braids and appears to be Native American. So why did Anderson put him in the film? Is he meant to be Native American? Is he there for diversity? For some kind of commentary considering the history of Monument Valley, Hollywood and Native Americans? For a joke? I have no clue. But I do think Anderson has lived a rather insular life and could be the poster boy for white, privileged male filmmakers. So this choice just doesn't feel like it was thought through in consideration of our particularly sensitized times. So a moment like this makes me pause and wonder about Anderson's intent. But Anderson has always created worlds built around his own peculiar quirkiness and not about the real world, so it may mean absolutely nothing.
Actor Jeffrey Wright, who plays a military general, offered this perspective on Anderson’s style: "I love that he does things his own way. Sometimes we make choices based on precedent, on what's come before. That must be the right way to do it. He's like, 'No.' So I have a great deal of respect for him in that regard that he's nonconformist and that he's his own artist, his own self."
But recently that "self" feels overly precious, like something made by a precocious child. "Asteroid City" feel like a delicate pastel-colored meringue that might crumble to a powder at the slightest touch. Anderson's films exist in a bubble separate from the real world. That is part of their charm and uniqueness. I absolutely admire the craft of his films but feel oddly removed from the characters that occupy a two-dimensional plane in his cinematic tableaux. My favorite Anderson films have been his animated ones, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" and "Isle of Dogs," where I found more engaging humanity in the furry animal characters than in his live-action film with humans.
But actress Hope Davis argued in Anderson's favor: "To me, he has a tender love for humanity and that's expressed in all of his characters. They're also all really funny. Every one of his movies has incredible laughs in it. But, to me, it's really the tenderness with which he views humanity and the animal world."
Many in the cast of "Asteroid City" have worked with Anderson before. Schwartzman is especially adept at handling Anderson's dialogue with the proper cadence and deadpan delivery. Wright, who was one of the delights in "The French Dispatch," tries to maintain order as a general facing some unusual challenges and delivers great work. Cranston, as the TV narrator who accidentally steps into the color realm of Asteroid City, and Tilda Swinton, as a scientist, are both wonderful.
Scarlett Johansson provided voice acting in "Isle of Dogs" but is new to the live-action realm of Anderson's directing. She plays the celebrity actress Midge Campbell and fits in beautifully to Anderson's universe. Plus she looks stunningly gorgeous in the soft, desert hazy sunshine. I miss Bill Murray, and Tom Hanks tries to stand in for him as Auggie's gruff father-in-law. But Murray is much better at delivering Anderson's lines. And be patient for Jeff Goldblum's brief cameo.
The film also seems a product of the pandemic since the characters are forced by the government to stay in Asteroid City and not leave until given permission. So, in addition to a sense of grief and loss that weighs over the characters, there is also a mood of isolation and loneliness.
"Asteroid City" feels light and superficial on first viewing but does tend to make you ponder moments long after you've left the theater. For me, Anderson is a bit of a conundrum and that keeps me coming back to see his films and try to figure him out.