Wes Anderson Orbits the Same Old Terrain on 'Asteroid City'

Directed by Wes Anderson

Starring Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum

Photo courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions / Focus Features

BY Allie GregoryPublished Jun 23, 2023

The Grand Budapest Hotel, The French Dispatch, Moonrise Kingdom — in the latter half of his career, Wes Anderson had hit his stride and showed no signs of slowing. An expert at world-building, aesthetic adornments, quippy dialogue and expert framing, the director's unique style is often imitated, never replicated. And he hasn't ever had a true flop.

Unfortunately, Anderson's latest, the Jason Schwartzman-led Asteroid City, finds him leaning too heavily on those stylistic crutches, painting a slice-of-life scene too bland to be saved by its pleasant pastel colour palette. 

Schwartzman plays a war photographer, Augie Steenbeck, heading to the desert so his eldest and only son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), can compete at the Junior Stargazers' young science whiz convention. His four children don't know it yet, as he has yet to tell them, but their mother passed away weeks ago. Augie, still grieving, meets famous actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), whose daughter is also attending the convention. Their motel cabins are situated right next to each other, allowing them to get to know each other through their respective bathroom windows, as the two strike up a slow-burning romance and bond over their shared loneliness. Here, as with Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson again employs Alex Colville-style framing, shooting Schwartzman and Johansson in their cabin confessionals using stark portraiture (figuratively, and literally, as Augie photographs Midge repeatedly and without permission in various stages of undress) as indicators of the unfolding love story. 

Similar to Dispatch and Budapest, Asteroid City is metatextual, relying on an external story-within-a-story framework of non-linear interludes; the bulk of the film is presented (by Bryan Cranston) as a televised play by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). A subplot involving Conrad and Schwartzman's Jones Hall (playing Augie in the production) seeks to break the fourth wall and act as a statement about the relationship between author and artwork, artist and muse. Where Anderson succeeds at multi-layered storytelling in his earlier works, he fails to do so with Asteroid City. He jumps between aspect ratios, colourways and ensembles, only serving to dilute the main story, which itself already suffers from a less-than-exciting plot. 

A fun twist partway through the film does liven things up quite a bit, and makes room for more of Anderson's massive roster of actors; notably, Johansson, Tom Hanks, Steve Carell (subbing in for Bill Murray) and Maya Hawke, among others, make their Anderson-verse debuts in Asteroid City. Schwartzman, having not appeared in an Anderson film prominently since 1998's Rushmore, gives a disappointing performance, barely expressing a single emotion — though that's more likely to do with Anderson's direction than the acting. The film's uncharacteristically short runtime (although still clocking in at 105 minutes) is too heavily weighted in its first half, spending a disproportionate amount of time on setting and character introductions, failing to find its focus in a timely manner. 

While Asteroid City is certainly enjoyable to look at with its retro-futuristic props and its surprise stop-animation scene, the film is a step back in Anderson's progression as one of the world's most noteworthy filmmakers.
(Focus Features)

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