Review | To interiority and beyond in ‘Asteroid City’
- Published: June 26, 2023
When a young Wes Anderson heard the melancholy Jaques declare, “All the world’s a stage,” in “As You Like It,” the nascent filmmaker must have bolted upright in his vintage chair — carefully thrifted, no doubt.
Over the course of his film career, the indie icon has laced Bill Shakespeare’s sentiment throughout each of his offbeat narratives. Provided enough of his quintessential stylized symmetry, iridescent color play, signature whip-pans and drier-than-the-desert line deliveries, Anderson can turn even the most mundane neuroses into endearing character studies — sometimes relatable, but mostly just charming to watch.
“Asteroid City,” his 11th feature film, takes that world-as-a-stage idea a step further.
Similar to “The French Dispatch” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson’s newest film cheekily toys with form and framing: It’s a film within a play within a TV show — I think. Its characters drift from the stage to the set and back again. They peer beyond several frames, looking at audiences both real and fictional.
Put a different way, “Asteroid City” is a meta film that spends 104 minutes scaffolding layers upon layers of tweedy, postmodern artifice. And I, for one, loved it. That kind of Russian doll storytelling is “patently my shit,” as I’m often wont to say.
A black-and-white Bryan Cranston first greets us. À la Edward Murrow or Rod Serling, Cranston ushers us into a mid-1950s program about the making of a play adapted for television by the famed playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and directed by over-the-top Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) — both of whom are also clad in grayscale.
Earp’s play is the primary narrative here. Set in the dusty southwestern Asteroid City, population 87, we meet pipe-smoking widower and war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his three daughters and prodigy — of course — a son.
Here in Asteroid City proper, we find ourselves in resplendent Kodak color, with Anderson dappling bright azure skies and red rock landscapes from his palette. The “actors” playing the Steenbeck family are in the one-gas-pump, podunk desert town to attend a Junior Stargazer convention. The brainiac son — Woodrow, played by Jake Ryan — developed a device to project the U.S. flag onto the moon, and invariably, develops a romance with another young scientist, Dinah, who can instantaneously grow plants to maturity from her technology. Another kid developed a disintegration ray gun. You get the idea.
Without spoiling too much, the Junior Stargazer convention is disrupted by an out-of-this-world event that could only occur in the American southwest.
From there, our/Anderson’s/Earp’s cast must reconcile their anxieties of the great unknown: their place in the universe, the scale of their menial and existential anxieties, where their stories lead, and perhaps, their indifference to it all. These kind of Cold War themes run rampant as atomic bombs rattle the set all throughout the film. I mean, play.
Amidst some later pandemonium, the “actor” playing Steenbeck dips behind the set of an asteroid crater to ask his director, “Am I doing it right?”
“I don’t understand the play,” Steenbeck pleads to Schubert Green.
Here, it’s almost as if Anderson extends some empathy to his audience. The continual shifting of narrative frames gets tricky, and Anderson seems to know that. It’s as if the head-scratching of the actors-playing-characters-playing-actors reflects the movie-going experience itself.
Like those navigating the world of “Asteroid City,” maybe we needn’t know what else there is in the universe. Maybe stories don’t need to be fully understood. Maybe our lives and the lines we recite on the Bard’s world stage could occasionally end in uncertain ellipses and not always definitive periods.
To be sure, “Asteroid City” is a solar system of star-studded real-life actors, each one playing a character somewhat aggrieved by that universal ambiguity.
There’s the broody movie star and romantic flame for many, Midge Campbell, played by Scarlett Johansson; Augie’s father-in-law, played by Tom Hanks, who’s unsure how to grieve his dead daughter; young stargazer Clifford Kellogg, played by Aristou Meehan, who compulsively challenges those around him with irresponsible dares; and, yes, many more.
Taken together, this cast of enigmatic eccentrics smash their ever-so-slightly obscured interior worlds together like Barbie dolls. More often than not, they speak with one another through windows, behind the baffles of the stage or beyond the narrative frame altogether. For the first time I can remember, Anderson uses his symmetrical stages to obfuscate his characters’ true desires rather than reveal them. Here, too, does ambiguity run amok — on set and off, on screen and off.
Despite all the uncertainty and purposefully veiled interiorities, Anderson’s “Asteroid City” is a work of cinematic art. It charmed the pants off of me, and if you’re a fan of his, I bet it’ll do the same for you. It might not be a movie to be understood, but it’s certainly one to be loved despite its ambiguous faults.
Generally speaking, what more could you ask? Isn’t that all any of us want?
“Asteroid City” is playing at the Little Art Theatre at various times from Friday, June 23, through Monday, July 3. Tickets can be purchased at the door before showtime or online at littleart.com.