2023, PG-13, 105 min. Directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, Steve Carell, Jarvis Cocker, Bob Balaban, Maya Hawke, Hope Davis, Hong Chau.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 23, 2023
If you’ve seen the trailer for Asteroid City, you already know the broad strokes of the story: In the titular city, an outpost in the American West, circa 1955, five gifted and talented “junior stargazers” have arrived for Asteroid Day. Then an alien encounter forces a quarantine in Asteroid City – not just for the stargazers, but their families, a group of schoolchildren and their teacher, a singing cowpoke, a handful of military officers, and sundry other personalities of varying degrees of eccentricity.
What the trailer leaves out altogether is that Asteroid City isn’t “real,” so to speak; rather, it’s a fictional construct within the larger fictional construct that is the film. The film opens with a narrator (Cranston) introducing a production of Asteroid City, a play by Conrad Earp (Norton). Shot in black & white and resembling the live-playhouse aesthetic of the Golden Age of Television, this framing device – interspersed throughout Asteroid City: The Play’s three acts – also gives backstage peeks at the production process. There’s Earp at home, meeting for the first time Jones Hall (Schwartzman), the actor who will eventually become the play’s lead; there’s the play’s director, Schubert Green (Brody), in romantic crisis and a Stanley Kowalski undershirt; there’s the play’s troupe of thespians in a workshop obviously inspired by the Actors Studio.
There’s cheeky fun to be had in spotting the influences and allusions, here and in so many of director Wes Anderson’s 10 other exactingly assembled feature films. There’s also something rather thrilling in the tonal and aesthetic discordance between the “onstage” of Asteroid City – bopping with energy, squintingly bright, and designed like a vintage postcard, all turquoise and terra cotta – and the “backstage” sections, monochrome and winkingly self-serious. I flatly delighted in everything set in Asteroid City: its light touch with quarantine-induced ennui and alien-inspired existential questioning; the delectably weird energy crackling between Augie Steenbeck (also Schwartzman), a widower war photographer, and Hollywood actress Midge Campbell (Johansson, born to play a period starlet), who are both parents to two stargazers taking their own tentative steps toward romance.
But what to make of the action when that fourth wall recedes? Schwartzman, as the play’s Augie, delivers what I’d initially thought to be a likably mannered performance; his teeth are so gritted I genuinely wondered if he’d had his jaw wired shut. It’s a startlement when Schwartzman, as Jones Hall, the “actor” playing Augie in the production, worries aloud that his performance is too mannered. That questioning kicks off an end-of-film stretch that’s as experimental as anything Anderson has done before. (Is it the climax? Maybe in an Ingmar Bergman film.) Tilting surprisingly dark – I suspect the film is at least in part about how we process trauma – but also somewhat impenetrable on first watch, it was another startlement when I realized I was crying. I can’t wait to go back.
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Dec. 8, 2023
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Asteroid City, Wes Anderson, Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, Steve Carell, Jarvis Cocker, Bob Balaban, Maya Hawke, Hope Davis, Hong Chau