Director: Wes Anderson
Writer: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody
Duration: 109 mins
Available in: Theatres
Sixty seconds could never even begin to scratch the surface. It's been a few months since the last influx of ‘Wes Anderson-style’ TikToks and reels – composed of symmetrical frames and pastel palettes, set to an Alexandre Desplat score – but it's taken the release of Asteroid City, in which the director's form and content have never complemented each other better, to cement what's long been apparent. The aesthetic is imitable, the artistry is not.
Each of Anderson’s precise, orderly and hermetically-sealed worlds are at odds with the vast churns of longing and grief they contain. Each of his characters attempt to exert some measure of control over their lives – whether through the 75-year plan concocted in Bottle Rocket (1996) or the brothers’ meticulous daily itinerary in Darjeeling Limited (2007) – only to find themselves succumbing to the grip of fate and circumstance. The same is true of Asteroid City, in which Anderson’s troupe of characters struggle to reconcile the finiteness of life with the infinite mysteries of the cosmos they’re confronted with, making for his funniest, most piercing movie yet.
Asteroid City might be one of Anderson’s most vulnerable films, but it’s also his hardest to untangle, lending itself much more easily to being felt rather than understood. Its characters exist in a movie about a television programme about a play, the messy overlapping layers of art and life hard to keep track of, even if they do allow for the delightful conceit of Scarlett Johansson, an actress, playing an actress playing an actress. There are also more meta references to film – Augie’s surname Steenbeck calls to mind the Steenbeck film editing machine and there’s a Looney Tunes-style beep-beeping roadrunner but Anderson’s ability to conjure mood and memory, to spark genuine emotion, transcends the artifice on which its built, even as he reinforces it by cutting to the behind-the-scenes making of the play.
There are the classic Anderson trademarks — the neat rows of diorama-like houses, the orderly lettering of a café façade, the careful framing — but the presence of a half-finished ramp is an aberration on the sprawling landscape, pointing to unfinished business and things left unsaid. Much like the impending storm in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) and the looming threat of war impinging on the enforced civility of The Grand Budapest Hotel, deep into the desert of Asteroid City, casting a shadow over the events of the film, are atomic bomb tests being carried out. A more potent spectre haunting its characters is grief.
War photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) must find a way to tell his young children that their mother recently died, though he's not the only parent in the film trying to find a way to connect with his kids. There's Midge Campbell (Johansson), an actress self-aware enough to realise that the movies have always come before maternal instincts. And J.J. Kellogg (Liev Schreiber), another parent moving through the clockwork precision of an Anderson film trying to find out what makes his child tick.
Sometimes, the play’s careful staging accommodates for the unexpectedness of life – a funeral scene is interrupted by a firework show in the background. Sometimes, the theatrical nature of the production only makes the sombre moments of self-reflection the characters have arrived at all the more wrenching. One of the film’s best, most moving moments is a spontaneous reenactment of a scene cut from the original play – having not been captured for TV, it now exists only as a brief moment of connection between the two performers – and its fleeting nature is precisely what makes it enduring. The lines are scripted, but the sentiment is honest. In every performance, there exists a kernel of truth.
In Asteroid City, characters gaze up at the night sky but are more preoccupied with trying to navigate the vast emptiness of a life that stretches in front of them. Mirroring the audience’s confusion, they may not fully understand the play they’re in, but that doesn’t stop them from feeling their way through it. In art, as in grief, there are no easy answers. Asteroid City isn't real, as the movie repeatedly reminds us. But that doesn't make the experience of having visited it any less rewarding.