Film Review: Asteroid City


Wes Anderson has made his film again. One of the most unmistakable filmmakers currently working, he is the go-to stylist for A.I.-generated parodies. His distinctive colour palettes, flat, lateral camera moves, diorama scene design and starry deadpan performances of witticism clipped from The New Yorker mean that most can pre-visualise his films before they even buy a ticket. Which begs the question: why go and see Anderson’s latest?

The most obvious answer would be that they’re so enjoyable. Asteroid City sees a bus load of disparate characters quarantined at a roadhouse near a crater which gives the desolate locale its name following the appearance of a UFO. Jason Schwartzman plays Augie, recently bereaved father of three moppet girls and a brainiac son. Scarlett Johansson is the film star a brunette Janet Leigh type who rehearses in the adjacent room. Tom Hanks is Augie’s father-in-law and the Bill Murray role.

There are three science nerd kids encouraged by Tilda Swinton’s government scientist. Everything looks beautiful: sand the colour of peach fluff and skies, a cyan blue. An occasional mushroom cloud blooms in the distance, as neat and unreal as anything here. All of this is framed by a metafictional conceit that we are watching a 1950s documentary on the making of a play written by Edward Norton’s doddering playwright and narrated by Bryan Cranston in full on pastiche mode.

The best Anderson films have always included a particle or lump of anti-matter or anti-Wes. The best example would be Gene Hackman’s Royal in The Royal Tenenbaums. Someone who is willing to give a slap of the real world that sharpens up the whimsy and stops it slouching. For the last few films such sand has not been added to the oyster and what we get is pure Wes. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The stars have fun, though some of the appearances are so perfunctory as to not merit the length of time it took to spell the word, and, of course, the movie looks great, and the comedy operates like a well-oiled machine while never letting you forget exactly how and where the oil has been applied.

Of the manifold repetitions Anderson indulges in, the only one which grates with screeching dissonance is his repeated deployment of the dead spouse to give his lightweight characters the illusion of depth. It’s as if he wants to convince us that behind all the origami is a raw human heart, so he fridges a wife and hopes that’ll stand as a placeholder for emotion. “This is grief,” a character says at one point, and we’re supposed to be suddenly chilled at the seriousness of it all but it’s like a school friend telling you that a friend he knew at another school died. I don’t believe it. The risk Anderson runs though is in boring himself. It’s fun to ride along with these nerdy pursuits but once his own enthusiasm begins to fail then the jog will be up.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty