Wednesday, June 21, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

“It’s today again.”

The best Wes Anderson stories are nearly always defined by their dramatic artifice, the knowledge — insistence, even — that they are fictional tales populated by characters dreamed-up by a taciturn auteur. His signature dollhouse Americana reads better this way, of course; that tinge of hazy romantic nostalgia for a mid-century that never existed is easier to embrace when it’s excavated from the depths of dusty hardbacks, as in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel, or presented in an animated un-reality like Fantastic Mr. Fox or Isle of Dogs. Rather than being dropped in medias res into an ongoing serial narrative — think the complex scatter plot of storylines that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe — his fables invite us to look wistfully at artifacts crafted from the past. We come to realize that he and his stable of co-writers (here frequent partner Roman Coppola) aren’t exploring the “what” as much as the “why,” interrogating the essences of the wayward players who make up his world.
Asteroid City is no different. A Rod Serling-esque presenter (Brian Cranston) introduces the life and times of playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), whose notoriety draws acclaimed actors Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman) and Mercedes Ford (Scarlett Johansson) and director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) to his latest project. Also called Asteroid City, it presents a small desert outpost as it prepares to play host to two notable events: The first is the annual celebration of the Arid Plains Meteorite, which landed in the area nearly three-thousand years ago. The second is the 1955 Junior Stargazers Convention, an astronomical symposium hosted by General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) and Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), and celebrating the work of self-styled teenaged “brainiacs” like Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan) and Dinah Campbell (Grace Edwards). A third event, a meeting with extraterrestrial life, will push those attending into the introspective ennui we’ve come to expect from Anderson’s oeuvre.

This framing device feels at first like an unnecessary intrusion into the main storyline, which begins when Hall’s Augie Steenbeck —a war photographer and recent widower — arrives in Asteroid City with son Woodrow and three daughters. Though ostensibly a chance to celebrate Woodrow’s achievements, this stop is also an opportunity for Augie to further delay revealing his wife’s death to the children, as well as his intention to drop them at the door of their maternal grandfather, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks). After being chastised by Zak — who promptly makes his way to Asteroid City to intercede — Augie becomes enamored with Midge Campbell (Ford — well, Johansson and Ford), a Hollywood star growing disillusioned with her fame. When the aforementioned close encounter leads to a government quarantine, Augie and Midge explore their shared grief while the mechanics (Matt Dillon), schoolteachers (Maya Hawke), and motel managers (Steve Carell) of Asteroid City adjust to their new — and possibly permanent — reality.
And while that’s certainly more than enough for another charming Wes Anderson adventure — light plotting is another of his signatures — it’s not until the seams of that story begin fraying that we catch onto what Asteroid City is actually doing: Every few beats, characters will speak over or interrupt each other, creating small, atonal flutters that disrupt his delicately-organized exchanges. Then there’s Cranston’s presenter, who often waits a hair too long to speak, as if he’s waiting for queues that are coming too late. These ticks are mostly innocuous until the third act, when Jones Hall begins questioning his character’s motivations mid-take and Green’s estranged wife (2022 MVP Hong Chau) begins offering the director backstage notes on scenes that haven’t yet come to pass. The characters in the movie aren’t trying to understand what they’re doing, we realize — the characters are trying to understand what they’re doing in the movie. Like all of us just a year or so ago, their quarantine has left them listless and undefined.
So if 2021’s The French Dispatch was — as I’ve argued — an ode to the chaotic fervor of creation, Asteroid City may be considered an exploration of writer’s block, of stagnation and creative ill-temperance. Stranded in the middle of the desert with nothing for miles in any direction, Anderson’s well-manicured dramatis personae are tilting at windmills, studiously journaling flights of fancy and living in the frustrating absence of emotional revelation. Asteroid City is, it gradually becomes clear, Wes Anderson’s COVID movie, a delightful ode to existential dread that may ultimately prove too self-reflexive for mainstream audiences to easily digest. But while our cast may feel as though each day is a copy of a copy — are those the same bank robbers leading police on a merry chase through the town square as yesterday? — Anderson and Coppola still permit them the courage of their resolve, the dogged confidence that their stories will take shape in time. All it takes is a little diligence, they discover, and maybe some help from the stars above.

Asteroid City hits theaters on Friday, June 23rd.