Written and Directed by Wes Anderson.
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jake Ryan, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Margot Robbie, Jeff Goldblum, Tony Revolori, Grace Edwards, Aristou Meehan, Sophia Lillis, Rita Wilson, Ethan Josh Lee, Fisher Stevens, Seu Jorge, Jarvis Cocker, Preston Mota, Jack Eyman, Gracie Faris, Ella Faris, Willan Faris, Brayden Frasure, Iván López, Zoe Bernard, Mellanie Hubert, Sebastian Stephens, and Bob Balaban.
Set in a fictional American desert town circa 1955, the itinerary of a Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention (organized to bring together students and parents from across the country for fellowship and scholarly competition) is spectacularly disrupted by world-changing events.
During the climax of writer/director Wes Anderson’s eleventh feature, Asteroid City (and a story conceived alongside Roman Coppola), a character struggling to understand and connect to the character he is playing within the meta-narrative stage play titled Asteroid City is told that none of it matters and to focus on feeling the emotion when it comes to playing the role. This revelation has a purpose if one is an artistic creator or actor (whether on-screen or on stage), but it’s also a maddening reveal confirming that there’s not much here to the many characters and subplots.
It would be forgivable if Asteroid City mustered up plenty of palpable emotion, but aside from a few clever musical numbers, a restrained but wondrous score from frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat, and moving performances from Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson that, unfortunately, the screenplay never realizes the full depth of their characters, the film functions as a pleasant indulgence of Wes Anderson trademarks and signature quirky humor without much to feel.
For that previously mentioned line of dialogue to register as anything but frustrating, the background story (told through the lens of a black-and-white TV show hosted by Bryan Cranston), which spills information about the various creative influences involved with the play within the movie (played by Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, and a brief Margot Robbie cameo), needs to dive a bit further into their lives, motives, and desires. You don’t feel why understanding the character Jason Schwartzman’s character is playing craves a firmer grasp on the material other than that acting is his job.
As for the play itself, it is centered on a small desert town in 1955 and its annual Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention. The location also happens to be the site of a meteor, hence the name Asteroid City. Jason Schwartzman’s Jones Hall is playing Augie Steenbeck, a grieving father who has delayed going on three weeks telling his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and three young daughters that mom has passed away from an undefined illness following multiple surgeries and attempted treatments. On the way to reunite with his father-in-law and their grandfather (Tom Hanks), the family car breaks down, stranding them in town, where Woodrow is also participating in the delightful scientific fun.
The family is rounded out by several supporting characters ranging from military generals, eccentric astronomers, parents, endearing brainiac children, and various staff, allowing for a gargantuan ensemble that makes reading the opening credits daunting. However, that grief and parental strife emanating from Jason Schwartzman’s performance are one of the only emotionally compelling dynamics found here, also becoming more engaging as he connects with Scarlett Johansson’s actress Mercedes Ford playing Midge Campbell, an actress herself known for dramatic turns playing abused spouses despite having a knack for comedy and wishes to take on those roles.
During one of their vulnerable, deep conversations – speaking to one another, staring directly across from separate buildings, with Wes Anderson’s familiar symmetrical shot framing, here courtesy of cinematographer Robert D. Yeoman – Midge expresses that she is a bad, selfish parent for prioritizing her Hollywood career. She does love her daughter (Grace Edwards). Augie similarly seems to care about his children even if he admits to temporarily considering abandoning them to their faces (a highly amusing and awkward scene) in the wake of his depression and bringing the family to Grandpa. Nonetheless, they believably bond over their craft and complicated parenting dynamics.
Meanwhile, Wes Anderson is admittedly dedicated to instilling wonderment into children and encouraging them to dream. At the end of act one, an unexpected visitor sends the convention itinerary off the rails while elevating the children’s interest in science and what lies beyond Earth. There is also a sugar-rush approach to science, including a hyperkinetic sequence where the bright minds show off their inventions.
Surprising no one, Asteroid City‘s production design has been painstakingly, methodically constructed, eliciting awe. A prologue that sees Edward Norton’s esteemed playwright Conrad Earp envisioning the setting, with narration reading off every distinct section, quickly generating wide-eyed interest, knowing that every detail rattled off will soon be visible and aesthetically arresting. Wes Anderson has unquestionably constructed another dazzling film with his expert camera panning, especially to elevate idiosyncratic jokes (such as a man turning to fill his zippo using gas station oil). There is also no denying that every scene is filled with oddball laughs.
From a directorial standpoint, Asteroid City is another mesmerizing gem from Wes Anderson. It only makes it more of a shame that the competing narratives and character work lack momentum and never coalesce into something as powerful as its themes and proposed messages.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email m
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