Asteroid City (2023) Film Review C

“Asteroid City” takes on too much and leaves us with too little.

The rarified world of Wes Anderson has become more oppressive with each successive release. Initially, he gave his audience a soupçon of acknowledgment and entertainment. There was the Stefan Zweig-inspired Mitteleuropa of “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Then there were Alexandre Desplat’s charming closing credits in “Moonrise Kingdom.” However, in 2021’s “The French Dispatch,” he entered his own hermetically sealed noncinematic universe, and there he remains, with his latest offering, “Astrroid City.” Working from an idea by himself and his friend Roman Coppola, Anderson gives us a two-for-one:

The main story takes place at “The Annual Junior Stargazer Convention,” which is set in the southwestern desert of the US in a town called Asteroid City (pop. 87), so named because an asteroid landed there 3,000 years ago, leaving an enormous crater. It is now the location for a US government observatory. Still, it is also where an annual convention takes place honoring the teen inventors of the best high-school science projects of the previous year. It’s also Anderson’s retro-futuristic version of 1955. It features an enormous cast, including Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Maya Hawke, Rupert Friend, Steve Carell, and Matt Dillon. They make up a mixture of locals and visiting parents. Anderson regular Tilda Swinton is back as an astronomer from a local observatory who gives out the prizes, and Jeff Goldblum makes a short appearance as “The Alien.” Jack Ryan and Grace Edwards are Junior Stargazer winners whose parents are played by Jason Schwartzman (a war photographer whose wife has just died – he still has her ashes in a Tupperware container) and Scarlett Johansson (a visiting movie star), respectively.

Just as the convention is about to start, something ominous happens in our Cold War setting (we can see the mushroom clouds of atomic bomb tests going off in the distance). The president of the United States decrees that no one is allowed in or out of town – a strict lockdown will be enforced until the danger has passed. The assembled bunch will have to live with one another for a while. So far, so Wes Anderson.

Unfortunately, some of the players in the main narrative also appear in a meta-parallel storyline where the Stargazer Convention is being filmed as a televised play called “Asteroid City” in New York. Set in the same period and filmed in B&W, these scenes are introduced by our host Bryan Cranston, with Edward Norton as the playwright, Adrian Brody as the play’s director, Hong Chao with one scene as Brody’s wife and Willem Dafoe as Lee Strasberg-like acting teacher.

Why Anderson decided to alienate his audience with this preposterously overloaded and needlessly complex set-up is anyone’s guess. The obvious answer is that Anderson, being Anderson, cannot help himself (and he has an undying love of Playhouse 90). If handled properly, the Junior Stargazers story could have been a charming retro-futuristic extravaganza, the cinematic equivalent of Donald Fagen’s 1982 masterpiece “ The Nightfly.” The result, however, is bloated and, apart from some funny inventions by our precocious stargazers, primarily devoid of charm.

Worse, the two parts of the film, instead of complimenting each other, grate on one another, the abrupt transitions destroying whatever we had been previously watching. Meanwhile, the massive ensemble cast in front of the camera is adrift while the eccentric director obsesses over the minutiae behind. It’s all unbearably precious. Of the adults, only Miss Scarlett manages to maintain a trace of dignity as our movie star who is suffering from depression. At the same time, Jack Ryan and Grace Edwards also have a few moments as the Young Stargazer winners (and, tentative, young lovers)!

Where does that place “Asteroid City” in the Wes Anderson oeuvre? It’s close to the bottom of the list, but with the odd moment of pleasure here and there, it’s a slight improvement over “Dispatch.” Maybe there is hope in Andersonville?

The impressive cinematography is by Robert Yeoman.


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