I didn’t want Asteroid City to end. This is Wes Anderson’s loosest, funniest movie since Moonrise Kingdom. As usual, every shot is interestingly composed and filled with quirky details to take delight in. It’s a cliché to say movies transport you to somewhere you’ve never been before. In this case, it’s true. I felt like I’d just spent 104 minutes in the titular location when it was over. Now I want to go back.
As usual with Anderson’s work, there’s an external story layered on top of an internal one. On the surface, the film is about Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer who arrives in a small desert town with his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and three daughters in tow. He’s a recent widower, although he doesn’t tell the children their mother is dead until they get there. His father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) shows up to watch the girls while Augie and Woodrow get down to the reason for their visit - a “Junior Stargazing” event/science competition Woodrow is taking part in. While that occurs, Augie connects with troubled actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Then a UFO encounter happens, forcing him to look at the world a little differently.
Underneath is a parallel story about art. In black-and-white sequences meant to replicate the look of an old TV broadcast, a Rod Serling-type host (Bryan Cranston) introduces us to writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), the guy who wrote the play we’re watching a production of (i.e. Asteroid City). The film cuts back to this intermittently, also showing us the director, Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), trying to pull the production together and the actress (Margot Robbie) whose big scene got cut.
There isn’t a single Wes Anderson movie I didn’t enjoy. More importantly, there hasn’t been a Wes Anderson movie I didn’t enjoy even more the second time around. His work is so rich in detail that it takes two viewings to digest it all. New layers always reveal themselves. This will no doubt be the situation here, too. The first time, it’s easy to get lost in Asteroid City’s gorgeous visuals, which look like a postcard from the 1950s, putting pastel colors next to and against browns and tans. It’s similarly easy to focus on the oddball characters, from a stern military official (Jeffrey Wright) to a motel manager (Steve Carell) whose establishment has a vending machine outside that sells deeds to pieces of real estate.
Nevertheless, a few key ideas do jump out upon first viewing. In a certain respect, Anderson’s story is about awe and wonder. The children in the movie have it, whereas the adults don’t. They’re more bottled up, with Auggie and Midge in particular lacking significant affect until forced to wrestle with the extraterrestrial event. Both must learn to get in touch with their feelings again. The black-and-white sections echo that, suggesting that the story we’re being told is Conrad Earp’s effort to exorcise his own demons and liberate his creativity – an effort Schubert Green adopts for independent reasons. Connect the dots and you get a theme related to the power of art in personal expression.
An oft-repeated criticism of Anderson is that his films lack emotion. I don’t believe that’s true. They’re filled with it, it’s just filtered through his visual sense and his offbeat humor. Actors, like Schwartzman and Johansson, are tasked with helping bring it out for the audience. And perhaps this is precisely what he’s getting at. A seemingly goofy story about eccentric people and UFOs can still speak meaningfully to human experience.
Of course, you can totally enjoy Asteroid City on a non-intellectual level. The movie is witty, well-acted, and endlessly pleasurable to look at. As a satire of old sci-fi flicks, it’s pretty sharp. Such is the joy of a Wes Anderson picture. Rewards exist whether you choose to go deep or stay surface-level. For my money, he hits a bullseye on both counts with this brilliantly idiosyncratic film.
out of four
Asteroid City is rated PG-13 for brief graphic nudity, smoking, and some suggestive material. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.