To their advantage and to their detriment, all Wes Anderson films possess certain similarities – intricately framed shots, stilted dialogue, and an overabundance of characters, among them. Anderson fans will be delighted to know his latest effort, “Asteroid City,” doesn’t disappoint. His detractors will be dismayed to know the same.
Taking place in the 1950s desert southwest, the fictional town of Asteroid City just so happens to be one of those towns where the government is performing cold war nuclear bomb testing. As the story progresses, it also becomes one of those towns to experience a shared alien sighting experience, a la Roswell, New Mexico.
The impetus for uniting the large cast of characters into a town whose population is a mere 87 residents is a Junior Stargazer convention, which annually awards young teenagers for their scientific inventions. It is into this setting the alien lands. As for other plot intricacies, they are less important, but rest assured there are plenty. As per the norm, Anderson stuffs too many details into his screenplay (based on a story he wrote with Roman Coppola), but then he has to do something with all those characters.
Our primary protagonists are the recently widowed Augie Steenbeck, a war photojournalist, and twice-divorced Midge Campbell, a famous Hollywood actress. They are played by Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson, who again proves her adeptness for playing purely comedic roles – as she did in the Coen Brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” Augie’s son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and Midge’s daughter Grace (Dinah Campbell) are two of the competing budding scientists, and although too young to “fall in love,” their blossoming relationship is one of the joys of “Asteroid City.” The parallel interest of their parents in one another is also intriguing, although more as a plot necessity than a true joy.
Almost all the great pleasure of “Asteroid City” involves the kids. Intelligent beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, Jake, Grace, and the other candidates spend their spare time in discussion and activity so brilliant their parents cannot relate to them on their own level. Even their game play is so advanced no adult is able to follow it.
Three of the aforementioned overabundance of characters are Jake’s three younger sisters, who are present merely because Augie is recently widowed and cannot leave them at home with “Mom.” But their insistence that they are witches and other undesirables is one of the very funny underlying plot points. Many of the plot points and extraneous characters are just that – extraneous. But the sisters are amusing in all their scenes.
Unfortunately, too much of “Asteroid City” is perfunctory and unnecessary. The half dozen kids who arrive from a gifted and talented private school are funny, but their teacher (Maya Hawke) and her constant effort to continue their daily lessons during the government’s inevitable quarantine (following the sighting of the alien) is irrelevant, as is her new boyfriend Montana (Rupert Friend), a singing cowboy who has descended upon Asteroid City for reasons never explained – other than simply to throw another character into the mix.
Further complicating matters is the use of the play-within-a-play technique that Anderson employed in his 2014 film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (still my personal favorite of his). In “Asteroid City,” Bryan Cranston plays a television host introducing a stage production of a fictional play by a fictional playwright (Edward Norton). At various points during “Asteroid City,” we return to the documentary about the play for no apparent reason other than to break up the monotony of the story.
But the story doesn’t need to be chopped up into chapters, acts, and scenes. Anderson would have been better off if he had simply shown us a film about an alien sighting in a 1950s desert town. Leave out the bookends (and all its accompanying interruptions). They break the momentum of the plot, and almost force us to readjust every time we return to the story. Granted, if it weren’t for the fictitious documentary about the fictitious play/movie, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, and Margot Robbie wouldn’t have anything to do. But then, did they have to be in this picture?
Anderson would have been smarter to broaden his main story thread – the relationships of Augie, Midge, and their children – and forget trying to cram half of Hollywood into “Asteroid City.” As Augie and Midge, Schwartzman and Johansson are dazzling. They deliver Anderson’s choppy, anesthetized dialogue better than any other actors Anderson has ever used (save perhaps for Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori in “The Grand Budapest Hotel”). They are even self-aware that they lack feeling, but that knowledge is half the fun.
As expected, each frame is exquisitely designed – as a photographer would, with each actor and prop placed exactly where required for the best effect. This can be annoying to those unfamiliar with Anderson’s work, but to those of us who consider ourselves fans, it’s simply what we expect.
Impossible to recommend or not
Unfortunately, my criticisms of “Asteroid City” are also exactly what we expect. Leave out half the cast, lose the effort to frame the story as a work of fiction (we already know this is fiction), and concentrate on the one or two truly interesting and entertaining story lines. In this respect, it’s almost impossible to recommend or not recommend “Asteroid City.” If you’re an Anderson fan, you’ll love it. If not, you won’t. Simple as that.
Andy Ray‘s reviews also appear on https://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/film-reviews/.