Whatever Wes Anderson is doing it might be better classified as ‘art’ rather than cinema. This was confirmed when he received invitations from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Fondazione Prada in Milan, to create exhibitions in 2018-2020. The Prada had already shown its affection for the director by getting him to design a bar in 2015. It feels, unsurprisingly, as if one is drinking in a set from one of Anderson’s movies.
Asteroid City is Anderson’s 11th feature since his debut in 1996, and it may be his strangest, most elaborate production to date. For those who were overwhelmed by the wall-to-wall whimsy of The French Dispatch (2021) or The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), this will present an alarming prospect. For the past decade, Anderson has asked viewers the question: “How much is too much?”
I’ve been a fan of his work from the very beginning. His films seemed fresh, original and funny. They combined black humour with a persistent sense of innocence, as if no-one were responsible for any of the bad stuff that happens in the world. Adults act like children, while children take on the roles of adults. His four-square cinematic style makes one think of framed pictures on a gallery wall, while his comic manner conjures up the spectres of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
And yet, as characters and sub-plots piled up in a teetering heap in The French Dispatch, I began to feel my romance with Wes Anderson was wearing thin. It was as if a reliably charming, witty companion had become besotted with his own charm and wit, testing his admirers’ patience, allowing dazzling originality to metamorphose into irritating self-indulgence. The French Dispatch and now, Asteroid City, are movies in which simple storylines are buried under so many layers of conceptual embroidery they can barely be decoded on a single viewing.
I know people who are bored and maddened by Anderson’s films, and I’m increasingly sympathetic to those views. Nevertheless, his methods are so idiosyncratic it would be glib to ever write him off. Let’s just say his movies ask questions of viewers’ personal taste that result in strongly positive or negative responses.
The story of Asteroid City may be told succinctly. It’s 1955, and a group of people are gathering in a small desert town (pop. 87), for a Young Stargazers convention. Four teenage geniuses due to accept prizes from the United States’ government, are accompanied by their families. Yet as the awards ceremony gets underway inside the crater that gives the ‘City’ its name, a UFO appears overhead. A tall thin alien bearing a strange resemblance to Jeff Goldblum descends in a sheepish manner and makes off with the meteor that sits at the centre of the crater. This incident generates a security alert which requires all visitors to be held in quarantine with no communication with the outside world. It falls to the four teenage geniuses to find a way around the ban.
If only it were that simple! Onto this framework of a story, Anderson spins a complex tapestry, beginning with an intro in which Bryan Cranston appears as the narrator of a 1950s black-and-white TV program, telling us we are about to see a completely imaginary work by acclaimed playwright, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), whom we find sitting at a typewriter in his dressing gown. This conceit will reappear throughout the film, complete with all the stagework of cinema and theatre.
The play Earp has written, Asteroid City, bursts onto our screens in brilliant, lurid colour. The sky is turquoise, the desert a yellowish ochre. The horizon is punctuated by red, flat-topped mountains and the occasional mushroom cloud. Soon the main characters will make their way into town for the first of three acts, and each of the visitors has a story. First up is war photographer, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), with his ’braniac’ son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and three small daughters. Augie has to break the news to the kids that their mother (a Margot Robbie cameo) has died, and he has brought her ashes along on the trip. As their car has broken down, he is obliged to ring his wealthy gun-toting father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), to come and fetch them.
Another of the teenage award-winners, Dinah (Grace Edwards), has arrived with her mother, Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a movie star recovering from a failed relationship, who can’t decide whether she covets fame or secrecy. Augie and Midge will have an affair that seems to be conducted largely via conversations through the windows of their respective cabins.
Every other character in a crowded, star-studded cast has their own distinct preoccupation – from the show biz antics of General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright); to the local inn keeper (Steve Carell), who tries to sell visitors small patches of real estate in the desert; to scientist, Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), who is the liaison officer for the young prodigies.
In the intervals between acts we hurtle back to the story of Conrad Earp, his lead actor, Jones Hall, who plays Augie (Schwartzman again), and theatre director, Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), whose devotion to the play has seen him evicted by his wife (Hong Chau), forcing him to take up residence in the theatre.
During a black-and-white interlude we attend an actors’ workshop, led by one Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe), which presents a dramatic contrast to the deliberately flat, stilted way the actors deliver their lines in Asteroid City. Anderson wants us to appreciate that the emotional engagement of method acting is only one style among others. The actors in the coloured parts of the film are so scrupulously deadpan they could be taking their lead from Brecht or Kabuki.
It’s anyone’s guess what this jam-packed tale within a tale is trying to tell us, but as usual, the innocence of youth triumphs over the jaded, authoritarian tendencies of the adult world. In this movie, that world is represented not simply by parents, but by the US military and the government. Inevitably, Anderson puts us firmly on the side of the teenage science buffs who react with calmness and clarity to a situation that induces a reflexive paranoia in the authorities. In the most oblique fashion, he seems to be warning us to be wary of the illusions of both art and politics. It’s another question altogether in an Anderson film, as to where reality is to be glimpsed beneath those multiple layers of illusion.
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jake Ryan, Bryan Cranston, Jeffrey Wright, Maya Hawke, Tilda Swinton, Steve Carell, Grace Edwards, Ethan Josh Lee, Aristou Meehan, Sophia Lillis, Adrien Brody, Hope Davis, Hong Chau, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Liev Schreiber, Rupert Friend
USA, M, 105 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 August, 2023