Written by Tom Augustine.
The haters always miss the sadness. This is why I’ve never been able to jibe with those who dismiss Wes Anderson as a simplistic purveyor of whimsy, which increasingly seems to be the dominant criticism of the man. The films of Wes Anderson are all, to some degree or other, deeply sad (save for, perhaps, The Fantastic Mr Fox, which is mostly just delightful), and that sadness plays at a gentle tenor, a kind of muted throb that emits just beyond perception, beneath all the bells and whistles. It’s cliche at this point to claim that the latest Anderson joint is the ‘most’ Wes Anderson film – what a strangely dismissive way to refer to years of work – so suffice to say that Asteroid City may have the most bells and whistles yet, and beneath, the most profound sadness.
Many have couched their reading of Anderson’s latest in the burgeoning threat of AI, which, bizarrely, has seen the work of Anderson serve as a particular cornerstone of recent discourse. The artistically bankrupt among us have been utilising AI to fashion ‘Wes Anderson versions’ of beloved franchises – Marvel, Star Wars, and the like – crafting plastic, shallow approximations of the auteur’s work. These reflect the seeping, dismissive perception many seem to have of Anderson, and the elements that have come to define his public image – the frames of perfect symmetry and pastel shading, the stacked casts, the dry, deadpan affect to the dialogue and narration. All of these things are present in Asteroid City, but for anyone who has watched one of these AI monstrosities and felt a resounding hollowness echoing within them – that’s what Anderson’s human sadness adds to ensure his films actually mean something.
Asteroid City unites a typically enormous cast, but largely revolves around a character played by an actor, played by Jason Schwartzmann. Yes, the film is (as is typical of Anderson’s work) framed by many meta, reflexive layers facing in on themselves. In this case, an old-fashioned television programme featuring a host rendered in black-and-white (Bryan Cranston), narrates a ‘behind-the-scenes’ expose of the making of a play – “Asteroid City” – that we then see the action of in the form of a film. Sound complicated? Remarkably, the film’s transitions between these worlds is entirely smooth, handled by a master of the form, and often used to draw intriguing observations about said puppetmaster himself.
In recent years, Wes Anderson’s output has reached new levels of intricacy, his delightfully hand-crafted diorama worlds drawing acclaim from some circles and ire from others. His latest is sure to give plenty of fuel to both camps, but represents one of Anderson’s most fully realised and quietly personal efforts yet.
The story of the film inside the play inside the TV show that is Asteroid City is thus: it’s the 1950s, and a group of space-cadet tweens are transported by chaperones to an isolated desert town near a nuclear test site to compete in a contest organised by the US Military and a nearby observatory. While there, an unexpected alien encounter places the families and town residents in a quarantine, where they are left to themselves to mingle and adjust to the realities of their lives. Among them is Augie Steenbeck (Schwartzmann) and his children, who have recently lost their mother, and a Hollywood actress named Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), who is chaperoning with her daughter. The grieving Augie begins a strange, semi-romantic relationship with Midge as a similar one forms between her daughter and his son Woodrow. Meanwhile, the actors playing Midge and Augie struggle under the hand of a wunderkind director (Adrien Brody), to properly understand the motivations of their roles.
Anderson’s big breakout, Rushmore, also featured Schwartzmann at the helm, and this is the first time Schwartzmann has taken a lead role in the auteur’s films since. Much has changed about the world and about the actor – where once he was a fresh-faced and eager young man, now he seems burdened by the world, beset with deep rings beneath his eyes. There is so much going on in Asteroid City, certainly, but Schwartzmann is our anchor, and Anderson makes sure we never steer entirely away from his characters’ emotional journeys. Part of the delight of Asteroid City is in the way the many layers of the story worlds speak to one another, and compliment each others’ ever changing forms. Augie is a source of great consternation for Jones Hall, the ambitious and charismatic young actor who has scored the role of a lifetime in Augie. Much in the way Augie has lost his wife, Jones has lost a co-star – the actress cast to play Augie’s wife (Margot Robbie), whose scenes have been cut from the play. The elegance with which Anderson weaves these parallel threads together is a joy to behold, and there are many further examples of this same device throughout Asteroid City, justifying the film’s complex structure and then some.
It is an incredibly busy film. There are an enormous amount of characters – a stern grandfather played by Tom Hanks, a motel owner played by Steve Carrell, a gay Southern playwright authoring Asteroid City played by Edward Norton, parents played by Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis and Randall Park, and so on and so on. Part of the way Anderson works is to throw everything at you in an overwhelming flurry of colour and action and perfectly constructed gags. It can feel like too much, sometimes. Ultimately, Anderson’s films are designed to be entertaining, as well as everything else. It’s only as the film wears toward a close that you start to feel that tinge of sadness draining through, the same way it did in The French Dispatch, and in The Grand Budapest Hotel before that. Asteroid City is many things, but most profoundly it seems to be about managing grief and the untold mysteries of existence – and how one might use storytelling to make sense of it. There’s an inherent melancholy to questions of this size, mainly because we humans simply aren’t equipped to find the answers, and Anderson is kind of the perfect candidate to muse upon that theme. For better or worse, (probably for better), Anderson is going to continue down the same rabbit hole, crafting ever more intricate, more detailed, more controlled, more alien images. In a sense, I suppose, Asteroid City is the most ‘Wes Anderson’ film after all – the genuine article, not some rough facsimile. Perhaps it’s better to say this is the most Wes Anderson film yet.
Asteroid City in cinemas now.
Movie title: Asteroid City (Anderson, 2023)
Movie description: In recent years, Wes Anderson’s output has reached new levels of intricacy, his delightfully hand-crafted diorama worlds drawing acclaim from some circles and ire from others. His latest is sure to give plenty of fuel to both camps, but represents one of Anderson’s most fully realised and quietly personal efforts yet.
Date published: August 10, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Director(s): Wes Anderson
Actor(s): Scarlett Johansson, Jason Schwartzman, Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Jeffrey Wright
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance