Interior. Theatre Stage. Night. The famed playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) clatters at his keyboard, putting the finishing touches on his next masterpiece. The director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) is ready. The substantial cast has their scripts and it’s time for Asteroid City’s opening night.
It is the 1950s and Asteroid City (Population 87) is a small desert town built around the large crater of the rogue pygmy “cometette” which fell thousands of years ago. Now annually, it is the site of the Junior Stargazer convention during which awards are given out by General Gibson (Jeffery Wright) on Uncle Sam’s behalf for achievement in inventions from teenage intellectuals.
The crowds make their arrivals, among them recent widower Augie (Jason Schwartzman), his son “Brainiac” Woodrow (Jake Ryan), Actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), and her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards). Also attending are a school class on field trip led by Mrs Douglas (Maya Hawke), a musical cowboy troupe led by Montana (Rupert Friend) as well as too many others to count.
During celebrations of all things astronomical a ‘monumental’ event occurs. Immediately, Asteroid City is put under quarantine with this eclectic motley crew trapped under military guard led by General Gibson. Romances bloom and tensions flair amongst the adult members of the temporary township. All the while, the five junior stargazer finalists, inventive by nature, discover ways to spread word of their plight to the outside world.
Full disclosure, Wes Anderson is by far my number one favourite writer and director working today. Without exception, every one of his films I’ve adored and have become instant personal classics. With his unmistakable visual style and snappy dialogue, you know Wes Anderson films, or his imitators, when you see them.
Anderson has always had love for the theatre, something quite apparent since his sophmore film, Rushmore. With many of his stories involving theatre plays in some way, his movies feel like theatre on film with their symmetrical camera angles and shot composition.
Asteroid City takes this a step further by having a framing device side story that Asteroid City itself is a theatre production we are being fully immersed in. Acts are intersected by a fictional meta narrative on the writing, casting, and production of the “show” you are watching. This is hilarious throughout the body of the film, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t damage the film’s resolution for me.
Instantly recognisable in a modern Anderson film is his love of retro art design and sets. This attention to detail is what has made his forays into stop motion animated features such a success. While Asteroid City is live action, it features cartoony physics enhancing the otherworldly nature of the film. The “atomic age” inspired town and production design by Adam Stockhausen being as glorious as his previous Oscar winning work with Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel).
Comedy is another big draw here with the sharp wit and humour of the film coming in rapid succession, thanks in part to the hilarious dry performances of Jeffery Wright. Wright was my favourite performance in Anderson‘s previous film The French Dispatch and he achieves the same ranking here. The actor is a highlight despite having a smaller role and he proves another great addition to Anderson’s ever expanding stable of regular cast members.
Asteroid City features possibly his most ambitious cast yet. Being so large, some famous names/faces can’t even fit on its huge ensemble poster. However, this huge cast is an issue which didn’t exist for his previous work. Whereas The French Dispatch was an anthology of mini narratives, this is a singular story about a pop-up village in lockdown. There’s simply too many things going on and too many characters played by A-list actors for everyone to get a fair shake.
For example, the central heart of the film appears as it will be the tumultuous stepfather/stepson relationship between Stanley (Tom Hanks) and Augie. You may have noticed I neglected to mention him in my opening. This is because unfortunately, Hanks only makes his proper entrance almost halfway into the film and merely appears sporadically after that.
Anderson is a master of delivering devastating emotional gut punches in his films which build up without you realising. Amongst the comedy, things can suddenly get very real thanks to how an actor delivers a single brilliant line and the meaning it has for their character’s entire story. Asteroid City tries its best but it’s impossible to develop any of these thematic or dramatic payoffs when every character has such a short amount of screen time.
Coupled with the film’s unorthodox meta-narrative framing device it could have worked. A play comprised of in-universe celebrities should itself be full of real-world celebrities. But rather, all investment in either narrative is thrown out the window for little reason with Asteroid City becoming merely an aimless Wes Anderson/Charlie Kaufman-like hybrid film at its worst moments.
I did love Asteroid City for the most part. As a retro sci-fi comedy, it should prove impossible for Wes Anderson fans not to enjoy, even if it is somewhat difficult to understand on initial viewings, and is most likely going to be alienating to newcomers of the maestro.