Asteroid City is Wes Anderson’s most impenetrable film yet
The movies of Wes Anderson have always been an acquired taste. His unique visual and storytelling sensibilities are such that they don’t really welcome newcomers. You’re either already all-in on his style, or you’re on the outside, wondering why everyone else thinks so highly of him.
That’s what makes his new film, Asteroid City, such a frustrating experience, as it seems to alienate even his most ardent fans. To be sure, it has all of his typical trademarks, taking place mostly in the titular desert town - one which features a gas station/mechanic, a motel, a crater from a long-ago meteor landing, and not much else. All manner of people descends on the town in the film, including Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a recently widowed man, and his four children; actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter; and Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), Augie’s father-in-law.
The goings-on in the town, set amid 1950s alien hysteria, is only half the story, though. That part is actually a play within the movie, which occasionally goes into black and white to show the lives of Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), the playwright; Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), the producer; two of the actors (also played by Schwartzman and Johansson); a narrator (Bryan Cranston); and more.
Written by Anderson and longtime co-writer Roman Coppola, the film – as it always is with Anderson – is a visual wonderland. In addition to his candy-colored, throwback palette, Anderson seemingly uses more camera movement than usual (although always in a fixed, linear manner) to reveal funny visual gags, like a recurring police chase with gunfire, vending machines selling way more than just food, an on-ramp to nowhere, and more.
The storytelling as a whole, however, is not nearly as whimsical. In fact, it’s Anderson’s most impenetrable film yet, with confusing diversions and a structure that seems designed to baffle. A group of young inventors, including Augie’s son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and Midge’s daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), engage in a series of conversations that are as opaque as you can get. There are multiple side characters with no clear purpose in the story, and the back-and-forth between the “play” and the behind-the-scenes of the play seems haphazard, at best.
Everyone in the film is naturally game to play in Anderson’s particular sandbox, and their performances keep the film semi-watchable even while the story continues down its murky path. Returning Anderson actors like Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Norton, and Willem Dafoe have his preferred deadpan delivery down pat, while Johansson, Hanks, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, and others are more than happy to match them beat-for-beat.
Anderson is clearly not interested in the straightforward version of Asteroid City, one which would revel in nostalgia and quirkiness and call it a day. But the majority of the extra elements he inserts are mystifying at best and off-putting at worst, leading to one of his least-appealing movies to date.
Asteroid City opens in theaters on June 23.