Wes Anderson is perhaps the only filmmaker out there who critics feel the need to qualify their opinions before a review of his work. You’ll undoubtedly see a lot of “First of all, I’m a huge Anderson fan” or “Anderson’s style isn’t for me”, and I’ve done it myself in the past. In a way, it’s a compliment; an indication of how singular his style is with his gorgeous, storybook visual palettes, huge star-studded ensembles, offbeat interests, and array of chronically weird characters. Asteroid City isn’t going to win Anderson any converts, and perhaps more than any other time he seems completely aware of that and has stopped trying to.
To be clear, Anderson may not want to change minds anymore, but he still tries to deflect their criticism. Asteroid City is set in 1955 in a fictional desert town, a surreal postcard of a town with a tiny gas station and diner as the central hub, a literal bridge to nowhere, and rocky landscapes so bright they practically glow orange. Oh, and there’s a giant crater, a town landmark that has inspired various scientific achievements, to be celebrated at a Junior Stargazers event. The townspeople and various guests from all walk of life, not to mention the brilliant young minds showing off their intellectual gifts, are trapped there for a week and are left to pontificate about life, love, and what lies beyond this little planet of ours.
Okay, that sounds uniquely Anderson-esque, right? Except, Asteroid City is something quite different. The film’s title is actually that of a play; and the characters we see are all actors performing said play, which is also being made into a televised broadcast. So immediately, Anderson is addressine of his critics’ key arguments; that his characters are stiff and keep the audience at an emotional distance. Well, when you’ve got actors such as Jason Schwartzman, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, and other Anderson regulars playing both their characters in town and the actors playing those characters as they try to decipher what the heck is going on, the emotional distance is baked right in.
Anderson might be trying to show some cleverness here, but it falls flat on its face. Asteroid City is dull and its characters lean to the point of starvation, like Schwartzman’s “grieving” father Augie Steenbeck, whose genius son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and three daughters are only just learning of their mother’s death weeks ago. Schwartzman has mastered the art of Anderson deadpan humor better than most, but even he can’t make anything out of this guy, an apparent war photographer who shows all of the personality of the diner’s meatloaf dinner sign. Somehow, and I mean because Anderson just wanted it to happen, he stumbles into frisky romance with Scarlett Johansson’s Midge Campbell, a Hollywood actress and mother who seeks to be more than just a beauty but to find meaning in her art. She explores roles that tackle tragedy and abuse, and to be fair, Johansson attacks the role like she’s in a completely different movie. Johansson is the one performance that stands out above the rest because she doesn’t approach it like she’s in a Wes Anderson movie; she actually imbues Midge with the kind of inner life that Anderson doesn’t dig deep enough to find.
On that front, we have the Junior Stargazers playing games that challenge one another’s intellect, and perhaps there’s a first love blossoming among them. We have parents (Hope Davis, Liev Schreiber, Stephen Park among them) sipping fresh cocktails and pondering the wares of the nearby snack machine. We have Maya Hawke as a religious school marm struggling to keep her students in check, while a singing cowboy played by Rupert Friend makes awkward attempts to get her attention.
Oh, and there’s an alien. An actual one. The military gets involved and the people are quarantined. It happens at a moment when Anderson probably assumes the audience has begun to lose interest. The creature’s arrival is so sudden and jarring, hanging around long enough to do something kooky before leaving. It’s the funniest part of Asteroid City by far because, again, it doesn’t actually feel like something Anderson would do. Wes Anderson movies would be a lot better if made by someone other than Wes Anderson.
So what is Asteroid City ACTUALLY about? Well, it does seem to be a lot of hurt people dealing with some kind of grief or pain, and the Junior Stargazers event is a way to consider what life would be like in another world, away from all of this. We’re meant to infer a lot of things, but mainly Anderson just doesn’t have the wherewithall to explore further than skin deep when tackling adult emotions. As we saw with Moonrise Kingdom, still to this day his best live-action movie, he’s more adept at the swirl of emotions raging within children. When grieving, lonely misfit Woodrow bonds with Midge’s equally-brilliant daughter Dinah (Grace), also an outsider, it feels like Anderson has found the story he really wants to tell and should be telling. Much of the rest of Asteroid City could’ve been jettisoned off into space and nobody would miss it.
Asteroid City is in select theaters now and expands on June 23rd.