In the age of IP-driven, franchise-connected films, few other filmmakers exist, as does Wes Anderson. Sure, his stylized way of storytelling has its fans. I’m one of them. His work has also attracted his detractors. Recently, Anderson was quoted as saying he’d delete any fan retelling of his works because he’d rather not see how the audience interprets him. That’s the beauty inherent in cinema: the opportunity to tell a unique story and to subjectively connect with an audience. Anderson’s latest, the wondrously fun Asteroid City, finds its heart and soul in the arid lands of the fictionalized locale of Asteroid City.
I’ve long been impressed by Anderson’s ability to tell uniquely human stories blended with dry, sometimes gallows humor. Sure, not all of his movies hit the same strides. The director relies on a solid troupe while bringing in fresh faces, mixing his antics with the humanity he wishes to explore, including Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, and Tony Revolori. Joining them are Tom Hanks, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Steve Carrell, Matt Dillon, Margot Robbie, Hong Chau, Jake Ryan, and Jeff Goldblum. This is a dream cast, each anchored by Cranston as the host, Norton as Conrad Earp, the playwright, and Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck.
In Asteroid City’s case, Anderson’s script, based on a story by Anderson and Roman Coppola, tells the story of a stage play, opening, and closing as a hosted segment on television, framing the events as we would see them on television, or ironically at the movies. Working with cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Coppola uses his framing differently than previous entries in his oeuvre, to significant effect. Gone are the emotionally driven framing devices, replicating the time the story is set in set against his stylized way of filming the play’s acts.
The framing device is vital to understanding the emotional subtext the actors bring to their roles and the story. Augie’s son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), has been awarded a high honor at the Junior Stargazer convention. In tow are Woodrow’s three daughters when their car breaks down. A hilarious repair scene with the family station wagon up on a lift results in the family not being able to move their journey forward. Stuck in Asteroid City, Woodrow calls on his father-in-law, Stanley (Hanks). The less said about their relationship in this review, the better – but the revelations and their impact on the characters is the primary reason to seek Asteroid City out in the theater.
That’s Anderson’s hook. You might watch the trailer and say, “This isn’t worth seeing on the big screen.” I’m here to tell you that a lot of heart and a wide swath of emotion is buried in the desert, making Asteroid City worthwhile.
As other conventioneers descend upon Asteroid City, Augie, and Woodrow must come to terms with themselves. Both are introverted, but for differing reasons; their exploration of what makes them tick and how they handle their truths drives Asteroid City. Scarlett Johansson is sublime as Midge Campbell, an actress who at first catches Augie taking her photo in a diner, as Johansson gives her best impression of Marilyn Monroe.
At its base, Asteroid City is a study of isolation and loneliness and how we, as humans, come to terms with those aspects.
For those caught off guard by The French Dispatch, Asteroid City is a return to Anderson’s unique form and a welcome one at that. It is often indulgent and firmly structured, and if you’re not a fan, this won’t bring you into his fold. For those who accept the type of storytelling he aims to accomplish, remembering that film is a subjective art form, Asteroid City is just the ticket.
Directed by Wes Anderson
Screenplay by Wes Anderson
Story by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Jake Ryan
PG-13, 105 mins, Focus Features