Here’s a question I have debated: would Wes Anderson be a great magician or a terrible one? On the one hand, much like the itineraries laid out by characters in his films, all of Anderson’s cards are generally on the table, with no room for surprise. However, that must be the trick in and of itself, right? Eleven films in, and Asteroid City functions entirely as a film that only the Grand Budapest Hotel director could make. Yet, he pulls off the feat of spelling it out for the audience and creating a feeling of joy with various hints of different emotions to have the film play out like a complete cinematic package. Even if I feel Asteroid City is less ambitious than The French Dispatch, there’s no denying the skill that comes from a director having such a precise execution when it comes to their style.
Set in 1955, the action of this film revolves around students and parents gathering in an American desert town for the Junior Stargazer convention. This convention rewards those who have excelled in some way based on their invention. Things go awry, however, when an unannounced element from the sky arrives, forcing all in town to remain in the area.
Wait, let’s back up. Anderson is one of our great nesting doll directors, as no film of his is complete without some elaborate framing device keeping the audience at least once-removed from the center. So, let me try that again. What I have said is true, but the characters are all actors performing as individuals acting out a televised theatrical production of the fictional events taking place. I could go through and list them out, but Anderson has a lot of regular players, with this film bringing in some familiar faces (Jason Schwartzman is ostensibly the lead of the film) and new ones (Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, and Maya Hawke, among others).
What makes this element important is how deliberate it means the choices by the actors are here. The framing of this central story within another story means that a lot of comedy can emerge from the stiff nature of some of the performers and dialogue. Whether or not that means appreciating the effort that goes into purposefully feeling unnatural or highly stylized in a manner akin to filmmakers ranging from David Mamet to Yorgos Lanthimos, it’s interesting to think of Anderson intentionally steering his cast in a specific direction.
However, there’s another side to this approach as well. As much as one could call this just another lark for Anderson to deliver, it has a sneaky underbelly. Asteroid City no doubt feels farcical in the way it stacks on so many characters and plays around with the setting being inhabited instead of telling a traditional story. With that in mind, it’s not beyond its moments of profundity.
In the midst of having actors such as Jeffrey Wright or Tilda Swinton delivering the most assured versions of their lines possible, given the conviction they bring to even the silliest of characters, this movie knows how to stop when the time is right and have characters consider certain things. So much of Asteroid City focuses on characters finding meaning in what they are after.
One scene involving Schwartzman and Margot Robbie finds such an interesting moment to recall a story, giving the movie that much more depth. Tom Hanks, who arrives fully ready to play in the world of Anderson, reaches interesting lengths with the time he has on screen that allow for the right kind of emotion that has him connecting with his character’s granddaughters. And then there’s the romantic element.
While understandably held back from being Anderson’s sweetest film, given the parameters in which this story exists, there’s something to be said about the numerous characters who are all finding romantic interests with others in the area. Whether its Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson (who have some of the most fun interactions in the film) or their characters’ children, played by Jake Ryan and Grace Edwards, the way Asteroid City allows them to bond over shared circumstances and relatable elements about their lives enhances the comedy and stirs the intended emotions.
Also notable is the setting. Yes, the familiarity of Anderson’s projects is in place here, given the soundtrack choices, music by Alexandre Desplat, production design by Adam Stockhausen, and Robert Yeoman’s cinematography. However, Anderson’s films are so synonymous with autumn that it’s a real event to see him embracing the sunny and warm Southwestern landscapes in which he has set this film. Using pastel colors, there’s a particular style still in place, but the brighter color palette does allow Asteroid City to feel unique in the realm of Anderson’s films, let alone what to expect from idiosyncratic 50s era sci-fi romantic comedies (yep, another one of those).
This far into his career, Anderson is not necessarily going to win new fans with his latest effort if those out there want to see the filmmaker drastically evolve. That’s not an expectation anyone should have, especially with Asteroid City feeling more self-conscious than most of the director’s works. Still, for those embracing what comes with an Anderson feature, this film has plenty of charm, humor, and a few impressively moving moments. The cast serves as a company of players, focusing less on finding ways to stand highest and more on serving a greater entity that is this oddball space-age story. So, with all that in mind, as far as exploring the mysteries of the universe go, this cosmic adventure set within the bounds of Americana is a winner for Wes; no sleight of hand required.