dir: Wes Anderson
There’s no way to review Wes Anderson films other than to say “If you like Wes Anderson’s fussy oeuvre, you probably will like this!!”. And the corollary absolutely must be true as well, in that haters of Wes Anderson won’t be any more won over by his bullshit here than ever before.
You might think there’s no point saying this stuff again and again with every (new) Wes Anderson review, but it bears repeating, mostly because his composition of scenes, visually fussy aesthetic and strict formalism does not vary from flick to flick, even when the aesthetics themselves and the themes and plots of his movies are significantly different each time (well, as much as is possible for him).
Also, not everyone knows what a film being a “Wes Anderson” flick even means. I find that beyond my own film nerdism, very few regular (normal, well adjusted) people remember the names of directors no matter how many films they watch. They know Spielberg, they know Scorsese, and that’s about it. Hundreds of films come out every year, most people never care about these details.
But I care. Okay, so of all the output this jerk is responsible for, this is as much part of his output as much as anything else is. In no way does it challenge his previous output. If anything it’s even more of a Wes Anderson film than usual: it is, after all, a formal exercise within a formal exercise, a play within a movie, within a play.
What’s the theme… well, stories within stories sounds awfully convoluted, but it doesn’t come across like that. It’s easy enough to follow, if you care.
I think there’s an element throughout the flick about men generally being disconnected from their feelings, leading to conversations between men who are hard pressed to admit how much they don’t care about each other. Or the widower who barely seems able to muster a hint of feeling towards his recently departed wife, and has delayed telling his kids of their mother’s passing for several weeks. He really doesn’t seem able to express anything, and doesn’t seem that bummed out by it.
Bully for him. Augie (Jason Schwartzman, who’s been appearing in Anderson’s movies since as far back as Rushmore), is the widower, and a war photographer, so he’s seen some shit. He’s the coward who hasn’t told his kids their mum is dead. What does he do… he takes photos, has a brief affair with a fading Hollywood starlet called Midge (Scarlett Johansson), doesn’t really feel much of anything, and that’s it. He’s initially at this place called Asteroid City because his son is meant to get some award for being, presumably, the biggest nerd in his state.
There are other nerds. Midge’s daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), who loathes her mother’s wicked ways, is also a 50s style nerd and, I dunno, is there. Other nerds also get awards, and are inventors, and are also the repositories for parental hopes and (failed) dreams. This being the 1950s, there are atom bomb tests going on constantly, and no-one’s too worried about it.
If one could dare to claim that Anderson’s aesthetics are somewhat borrowed, it’s the imagery and colour scheme of 1950s travel guides AND sci fi (think Forbidden Planet or The Day the Earth Stood Still as well as that Technicolor look which none of us ever thought matched any real world that anyone lived in (with the possible exception of Barbie, but let’s not go there just yet).
This is a time when scientific advances, including the bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of people less than ten years earlier, instilled in Americans feelings of entitlement and optimism towards the future, rather than dread. And even when an alien appears in the story, which prompts the government (in the form of General Gibson (Jeffrey Wright, magnificent as always) to be as heavy handed as you would expect, essentially incarcerating all the temporary visitors to Asteroid City.
It's a place that shouldn’t really exist, and doesn’t really exist, outside of the film we’re watching, and the play these people are putting on. They are the actors playing the parts in the movie, as well as the actors playing the actors putting on the play that constitutes the movie we’re watching.
Is it hard to differentiate? No, not at all. The ‘real’ bits outside of the play are in black and white, and narrated constantly by Bryan Cranston. Cranston is Cranston. To most people he’ll always be Walter White from Breaking Bad. If I knew Mr Cranston in real life, I think I would be a little afraid of him. But no, to me he’ll always be the bonkers rollerskating dad from Malcolm in the Middle. In this flick he’s pretty much a cross between Rod Serling giving the introduction to an episode of The Twilight Zone, and some golden era of journalism type narrating the events from one of those anti-Communist show trails Senator Joe McCarthy put together.
“Good Night” *drags on cigarette* “and Good Luck.”
When it’s black and white, well, it’s about some overwrought playwright called Conrad Earp (Ed Norton) and about all the hassles arising from putting the play together, and how some of the actors or directors get to be involved. Also, two men kiss, so I guess this is Anderson’s great leap forward as an ally to the LGBTQIA community by having two gay characters for the first time in one of his films after 20 years.
That’s not true: I tell an abject lie – there was that character in The Grand Budapest Hotel who said he was “a little bit gay”, and the character in the last section of The French Dispatch who was clearly gay since he was somewhat based on legendary man of American letters James Baldwin. Other than that, when I think of whether gay characters have generally existed in Anderson’s worlds, despite how incredibly fussy his universe is, and how intricate the costuming, they are generally not overtly represented or that visible.
Oh, but they’re there, have no doubt about that. Always lurking in the background, crafting things up, making sure everything looks perfect.
But enough about that. There are about 400 well known people in this flick, but the vast majority of them barely get enough screen time or dialogue to even stand out, and yet most of them try to put a stamp on their thinly written but overly costumed characters. Why is Matt Dillon playing a mechanic? Well, why not? He has 30 seconds of screen-time and then never speaks again.
Is it memorable though? I remember each and every fussy scene in this goddamn film, and laughed at many of them. I didn’t just say out loud to someone, with a completely straight face “that was amusing.” I actually laughed. That aforementioned scene with Dillon, he describes two possible scenarios with a car desperately in need of repairs. As the scene bears out, there’s a third possibility he never imagined.
For whatever reason that scene, depending as it does on a car part, is mirrored when an alien comes to take back its property, being the asteroid that the city (of population 58) takes its name from. For whatever reason (one that doesn’t make sense to any other mere mortals), the UFO and the car share the same part.
Why? Wrong question.
A character, playing an actor, the one who plays the photographer, begs the director (Adrian Brody) to tell him if he’s playing the character right. He’s told to keep playing him as he is, to just keep going. But does he mean as the character in the play, or the character in the movie playing an actor who’s playing a character in a play?
We’ll never know, even as he meets an actor (Margot Robbie), playing the actor who would have played the mother in the play, who dies unceremoniously offscreen, who gets to deliver her monologue for once, despite her lines being cut from the play. This allows the actor to feel an emotion, being, I think, sadness, and also possibly a first for a character in a Wes Anderson movie.
People feel things, but can’t express them other than in the tightly reined things that the director allows them to do. It must be so fucking frustrating for them, but, let’s be honest, these people would give a kidney, maybe someone else’s kidney, in order to be in Wes Anderson’s films regardless.
Who the fuck knows. Hollywood megahunk Bob Balaban turns up and gets a paycheck, but not for much. I can’t even recall if he had a line of dialogue, or whether he just briefly existed in a scene. Maybe he wasn’t even meant to be there! Maybe he snuck on set, determined to be in as many Andersonian flicks as he can before he departs this mortal coil.
The fact that they did all this during the COVID era, and the film itself includes scenes where everyone is forced to stay in place due to a government quarantine, and Bill Murray didn’t get to play the character that Tom Hanks ended up playing (quite pointlessly, may I add) because he got the spicy couch, that’s even funnier. That’s funnier than anything in the flick.
Look, I liked it, but then again I like his films, the fussiness not detracting from the archness of the experience for me. I don’t pretend to know what it means beyond what it seems to mean, and I ultimately don’t care that much, beyond the general message that people shouldn’t panic and isolating groups of people isn’t always the best solution to a problem, perceived or otherwise. For me this was like watching a new Hal Hartley film, like one I haven’t seen since the 1990s, and I miss Hal Hartley in his prime.
Asteroid City – a nice place to visit, appalling place to be quarantined
7 times I wonder how he keeps doing it, and sometimes why out of 10
“I play the Alien as a Metaphor, but I'm not sure what of...” - Asteroid City