Opening wide in theaters on Friday 23rd June (following a limited engagement in Los Angeles and New York), ‘Asteroid City’ is the latest film from director Wes Anderson, who has brought us the likes of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, ‘Moonrise Kingdom’ and ‘Rushmore’.
What’s the story of ‘Asteroid City?
For his latest, ‘Anderson’ is working on two levels. The first is the production of a play called ‘Asteroid City’, written by playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). His new stage production is itself the subject of a TV documentary fronted by Bryan Cranston’s unnamed host, which is peeking into the creative process behind the work.
We watch some of the cast outside the play, and Earp at work on the script, before sets are built and other actors are introduced. Then the movie itself follows the story of the play, introducing us to war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), who is bringing son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to the titular desert town to take part in a Junior Stargazers event when his car develops trouble.
Steenbeck, who is recently widowed, calls his father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) to pick up Woodrow and Auggie’s three daughters (who have yet to learn the news of their mother’s passing), and makes the most of the situation.
Asteroid City is hosting the Stargazers’ event partly because it is the site of an asteroid that landed 5,000 years ago and has attracted various characters to its dusty locale. The event, incidentally, is interrupted by the arrival of an alien, who takes the asteroid.
Who else is in ‘Asteroid City’?
In true Anderson style, the director has tapped many from his recurring roster of actors besides Schwartzman. Scarlett Johansson plays Midge Campbell, Jeffrey Wright is General Grif Gibson, Tilda Swinton is Dr. Hickenlooper, Adrien Brody is Schubert Green, Tony Revolori is Gibson’s
Aide-de-Camp, while Jeff Goldblum plays a role we won’t reveal here.
New to one of his films this time is Hanks plus Steve Carell (as a motel manager), Maya Hawke (as a teacher overseeing school students) and Margot Robbie (as the actress who was to have played Auggie’s late wife in flashback scenes cut from the play).
At this point, we all know what to expect from a Wes Anderson films. He has such an established style that he’s been parodied many times. And if you’re expecting a giant switch in terms of the visuals here, you will be disappointed. Likewise, his arch, dialogue-heavy tone is also on full display.
Anderson is a singular director, and if you buy into the vibe and feel of his movies, you’ll have a good time with ‘Asteroid City’. He’s created another set of memorable characters and an engaging locale for them to inhabit. And the idea of the play wrapping makes this stand out compared to the relative disappointment of ‘The French Dispatch’, which suffered from its split storyline.
It helps that the director’s usual company are past masters at delivering his dialogue (here written by Anderson from a story by him and regular collaborator Roman Coppola) and bringing the characters to life.
Johansson (marking her second Anderson movie after voicing a character in ‘Isle of Dogs’) fits in well with the usual crowd, bringing a dual role to life. She plays the actress hired to take the role of Midge Campbell, a movie star who becomes something of a focal point for Auggie. Hanks also blends seamlessly into this world as Auggie’s stern (but not cold-hearted) in-law, a rich man with little time or patience for nonsense.
Cranston doesn’t have as much to do as the host, but he does fulfill the role with gravitas, while Norton is great as Earp, a troubled sort with a tragic fate.
But despite the large ensemble, this is truly Schwartzman’s film, and the Anderson veteran is more than up to the task of keeping Auggie feeling like a relatable human being amidst all the idiosyncrasy. His relationship with Woodrow is also well-defined, while Ryan is a nervy, yet still likable teen struggling with a mixture of genius and stirring hormones, the latter helped along by the presence of Midge’s daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards).
Around them, there are fun turns from Carell (whose motel manager is obsessed with vending machine and guests’ juice choices) and Wright’s general, who has to deal with endless governmental orders and gives enjoyably rambling speeches.
There are a few issues with the film, though they don’t affect its impact too much. Some of the cast have so little to do (Willem Dafoe, for example, whose role is essentially a wordless cameo) that you have to think they only turned up to do the director a favor and that their parts might have been better played by unknown actors. Others, such as Swinton, make the most of smaller roles, but are offered little in the way of depth or story.
And there is, of course, the divisive nature of Anderson’s output –– if you find his movies lacking heart and substance, then we can’t really recommend checking out his latest for all the reasons that devotees will enjoy it. And there are some elements, such as a roadrunner puppet, that deserves more screentime (the roadrunner does at least get his due during a fun musical sequence that plays over the end credits).
Still, there is a lot to like about ‘Asteroid City’, its quirks never overriding its charms. There are human stories to be found here, and some entertainingly out-there sci-fi moments to help Anderson newcomers settle into the place and time.
‘Asteroid City’ receives 7.5 out of 10 stars.
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‘Asteroid City’ is produced by American Empirical Pictures and Indian Paintbrush. It is set to release in theaters on June 23rd, 2023.