Asteroid City – movie review

The consummate stylist of the American cinema is back and in top form. Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City is another excellent entry in the director’s canon and is probably his most accessible work since Rushmore.

As I’ve said in these (digital) pages before, Anderson is a love-him-or-hate-him proposition. If you’re in the “hate-him” camp, you can stop reading now, because this film won’t change your view. But if you’re on the “love-him” side, then this is a glorious example of Andersonian brilliance that you’ll just want to wallow in.

In a way, the film couldn’t be better timed (at least in Australia). Coming hard on the heels of both Barbie and Oppenheimer, the film (unintentionally) taps into the ideas and themes of both. Like many Wes Anderson films, it’s steeped in nostalgia for a half-remembered (perhaps imagined?) time and place – the same force that’s propelled Barbie to the top of the box office. In this case though, the time and place is 1950s America, when the country lived in fear of nuclear war – which circles back to Oppenheimer.

A feature of Anderson’s recent films have been their framing devices, so it’s no surprise this film has one too. It takes the form of a 1950s television broadcast (hosted by Bryan Cranston) about the new play by acclaimed playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). The show goes behind the scenes of the production, and then presents the play itself (the main part of the movie). So it’s a movie showing a play within a TV show. And there are real actors playing characters who are actors, who are playing characters in the play. Got that? Right, let’s move on.

In the main section – shot in vibrant colour in contrast to the black-and-white of the TV show – a diverse bunch of people has gathered in the tiny desert town of Asteroid City for a special occasion. It’s the 1955 Junior Stargazers event (neato!), where science-obsessed youngsters from across the US are feted in a three-day celebration. Among these young people is Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan). His father Augie (Jason Schwartzman) has driven Woodrow and his sisters cross-country for the event, but their car has broken down and can’t be fixed by the local mechanic (Matt Dillon). Augie calls his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) to come and collect them. But Augie also has to find a way to tell his children their mother passed away – weeks ago. Meanwhile, Hollywood star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) is also in town because her super-smart daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards) is to receive an award. The event is (disturbingly) run by the US military under the watchful eye of General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright). Despite a few hiccups, the celebration is pretty much in full swing. But an unexpected development will see their stay in Asteroid City extended.

The original screenplay – by Anderson and regular collaborator Roman Coppola – is bright and breezy, in contrast to the more intellectual The French Dispatch and Grand Budapest Hotel. The story tackles familiar Anderson themes – loss of innocence and dealing with grief prominent among them. It’s also very funny – so much so that people were guffawing at the screening I attended. Sure, it has a smart edge, but the humour here really elevates it.

A special shout-out needs to go to Anderson’s regular cinematographer Robert D Yeoman. While this is pretty much a DOP’s dream assignment, Yeoman juggles aspect ratios, black-and-white, widescreen vistas and intimate moments in a tour-de-force. Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty score – complemented by a stack of songs from the era – is the perfect accompaniment. Snaps too for Adam Stockhausen’s production design. His creation of the hamlet somehow straddles the artificiality of the stage with the reality of the American West.

As usual though, it’s all about the actors for Anderson. Jason Schwartzman – who’s basically grown up in Wes’s movies – gives a mature read on Augie. Scarlett Johansson is excellent as Midge and finds many facets in the character. Jake Ryan and Grace Edwards slip easily into Anderson’s unique acting style as their children. Jeffrey Wright is strong in a smaller role as General Gibson; and you can say the same for a host of actors including Tom Hanks, Rupert Friend, Steve Carell, Hope Davis and Maya Hawke. Look out too for Margot Robbie in a tiny but vital cameo. But the film is basically stolen by three little girls – Ella, Gracie and Willan Faris – as Augie’s daughters; wonderfully named Andromeda, Pandora and Cassiopeia.

Asteroid City is something of change of pace for Wes Anderson without straying too far from his favoured style and themes. Sure, it’s not for all tastes. You could argue that even at his most accessible, Anderson’s movies are still for a “select” audience. But if that’s your thing, you’ll find a treasure trove of delights here.

David Edwards

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