David Jenkins


Asteroid City – first-look review

Wes Anderson returns with one of his most dazzling, rich and playfully self-reflexive films to date, brought to eye-popping life by an all-timer ensemble.

The last time Wes Anderson took us on a class trip to the theatre, optional safety glasses and earplugs were provided to all patrons. With his scintillating and archly metafictional new work, Asteroid City, he allows us to bask in the frivolous delights of a play, while also carefully dismantling the process of artistic creation in real time. It’s the type of film you might imagine the great Max Fischer himself might have directed had his scholastic brief encompassed a bells-and-whistles homage to mid-century pulp science fiction.

It is, on one level, an adventure picture about the possibilities of deep space exploration, about meek extraterrestrial visitors, the family unit in crisis (of course!), and a slew of beautiful lost souls succumbing, at the expense of love, to the allure of the working life. Or more specifically, a love of making things with your hands. On another level, it is a moving paean to the actors whose expressive faces, whose Chablis-dry line deliveries, and whose ardent commitment to what they view as a grand and coherent vision, has powered Anderson’s pictures for coming-up-to 30 years.

Classics of the Anderson corpus such The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch employ a literary framing device to both justify the expressionist flights of fancy on show, and use this playful disconnect to mine concentrated levels of human emotion. Asteroid City is about the story, and the telling there-of. It’s the most gorgeous cinematic Matryoshka Doll you ever did see. Or more like little nesting space vessels, breaking apart as they ascend into the Techincolor atmosphere. Passion radiates from the screen, but in a way that’s more self-critical and less earnest than his previous 12-gun-salute to the classic-era scribes of The New Yorker magazine, The French Dispatch. Could this be his masterpiece? Could it?

The film offers a chronicle of the quietly profound machinations that occur in a culturally spartan yet scientifically fecund American desert tract that’s located on farm route six, mile 75 in a southwestern US state that isn’t specified. Jason Schwartzman (an Anderson totem on sparkling form) plays Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer with a geometrically cut beard and intense mien that leads him to resemble Orson Welles’ hirsute mystery man, Mr Arkardin (though was in fact inspired by Stanley Kubrick). He’s in town with his “brainiac” son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to present an invention at this year’s Junior Stargazer festivities, in which a gaggle of scientists, military folk and intrigued onlookers gather to witness a once-in-a-generation cosmic event.

Everyone is shacked up in a motel run by a raffish and relaxed Steve Carell (a surprisingly wonderful new addition to Anderson stock players), and the recently-widowed Augie shares adjacent windows (and more) with unassuming grande dame of the big screen, Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson, reminding us why we fell in love with her in the first place).

Meanwhile, timid schoolteacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke, another lovely new addition) attempts to corral the endlessly inquisitive members of her class while also being roped in by wanderin’ cowboy balladeer, Montana (Rupert Friend, who frankly deserves his own spin-off picture). The last person to mention is Bryan Cranston, our angular, Rod Serling-like narrator who connects the hot fictional plains of Asteroid City to the cold “reality” of a company of struggling sixties theatre actors searching for motivation through sloganeering and self-doubt.

Anderson uses these parallel timelines/realities as a way to comment, with bruising honesty, on his own place as a writer and director, while also creating a celebration of what it means for real working to play-act for a living. By constantly underscoring the artificial nature of the story, he has landed on a way to make everything feel more moving, where “finding” a character is akin to discovering a new constellation and earning the privilege to name it.

All this to say, Asteroid City is Anderson’s most complete, rich and surprising film to date, and perhaps his most autobiographical in some obscure, allegorical way, in that it stands as testament to how filmmaking is about bringing artists together and attuning them to a specific wavelength. On a more superficial level, it’s a film which pushes his patented funny/sad dichotomy to its wildest and most enjoyable extremes.

It runs you through the emotional wringer, one minute offering a jaw-dropping train-carriage screwball workout worthy of Howard Hawks, the next, giving a horrendously moving and perfectly judged little scene which involves one of the actors who was cut from the final production. Wes has punctured through the stratosphere, and the only question left to ask is, will he ever turn back to Earth, or venture off into the infinite?

Published 23 May 2023

Tags: Jason Schwartzman Maya Hawke Scarlett Johansson Steve Carell Wes Anderson

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