Asteroid City is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

I think it is incumbent upon critics to acknowledge that there is a significant difference between the statements "I don't care for this movie" and "This movie is bad." I'm sure I'm as guilty as anyone of forgetting that from time to time, but I really do try to keep it in mind. Just because something is not my kind of movie, that doesn't mean the movie is objectively bad. Just because I don't understand a movie, that doesn't mean the movie is bad. Just because a movie wasn't made for me, that doesn't mean a movie is bad. Just because I don't like what a movie has to say, that doesn't mean the movie is bad. There's no such thing as truly objective criticism: reviews are always personal, inextricably located in individual tastes, perspectives, and agendas.

That's not even a bad thing. (It is, at any rate, unavoidable.) And, to be clear, I'm not saying that all opinions are equally valid (they're not), or there are no such things as good movies and bad movies (there most certainly are). But, just as it's possible to love a movie we know is bad—and we all do, from time to time—it's also possible to be unmoved by, or even take against, a movie we know is good.

You will have guessed, by now, where I am going with all of this. I have, very deliberately, never written about a Wes Anderson movie. And—were it not for my current project to review everything this summer—I would not choose to do so now. Many people I respect love and admire Wes Anderson's movies, and I don't begrudge them their enjoyment. However—despite my being a White, middle-class, college-educated, film- and literature-obsessed, Paris Review-reading, deadpan American male of Anderson's exact age—his movies have never really worked for me. They are a frequency to which I am incapable of tuning. They are a fetish I do not happen to share, but one I have no particular wish to judge.

(I suspect I have sometimes resented Anderson's movies, in part, because other people assumed they were precisely the sort of movies I would love. And I just can't.)

And yet I do not think Wes Anderson movies are bad, or that he is somehow a bad filmmaker. I believe he is, in fact—by almost every measure that matters—a very good one, and perhaps even a great one. He has a singular vision, a unique style, and a meticulousness with craft that is genuinely stunning to behold. I honestly can't think of another living filmmaker whose body of work is so distinctively and recognizably their own. For that matter, I'm not sure there has ever been a filmmaker who was so clearly making exactly the movies they wanted to make. So Wes Anderson's work has originality, precision, and integrity: what more could we ask of an artist?

And yet I don't care for his movies at all. I've never really loved any of them, and (at least since 2012's Moonrise Kingdom, which I rather liked) I seem to enjoy each new one less and less. (I literally could not get through his last film, The French Dispatch.)

So what am I to do with that? And how on earth am I supposed to write about Asteroid City? 

For Asteroid City is arguably the most "Wes Anderson-y" Wes Anderson film that Wes Anderson has yet made. At times it almost feels like self-parody, and—since Anderson's films usually feel at least a little parodic to start with—that means this one feels like an intentional doubling-down on the pure, self-conscious Wes Andersonosity of it all.

My use of the word "intentional" there is almost absurdly unnecessary, of course. Absolutely everything in Anderson's movies is intentional: every shot, every word, every detail, every carefully-coordinated color combination, is where and how he fussily placed it. (One senses that there are no accidents—even happy ones—on Wes Anderson movies.) But here Anderson makes it unmistakably clear that he knows exactly what he's doing. He even makes it clear that he knows exactly why some people (like me) feel frustrated and alienated by his movies, and that this is, to a certain extent, the desired effect.

Let me explain, if I can. Written by Anderson and his frequent collaborator Roman Coppola, Asteroid City is a movie about a TV show about the production of a stage play. It opens in black-and-white, and a 4:3 academy ratio, on a 1950s or early '60s television special hosted by a Rod Serling-esque figure (Bryan Cranston). The Host is introducing a live special on the making of a production of the stage play Asteroid City, written by famed American playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). Throughout the film we will go back to these black-and-white segments, and see scenes of the development of the play, the casting of the actors, etc. The bulk of the film, however, is made of scenes from a production of Earp's play, starring the actors we've seen cast. These segments, however, are not filmed like a play, or even like a TV show, but like a movie: a widescreen studio production in Anderson's creatively-compulsive color palette, with a full-sized set that still maintains a certain theatrical artificiality.

The story of Asteroid City—the play—concerns events in the tiny titular desert town (Pop. 87) in a fantasized version of 1955. The cratered site of a meteoroid strike thousands of years ago, Asteroid City is now a minor tourist destination, and plays host to an annual convention of Junior Stargazers overseen by scientists, military officials, and shady government agents. Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer, has brought his genius inventor son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to the convention, along with the witches-coven of Woodrow's three younger sisters Andromeda (Ella Faris), Pandora (Gracie Faris), and Cassiopeia (Willan Faris). Augie is grieving the recent death of his wife, an event he has not shared with his children, to the annoyance of their maternal grandfather Stanley (Tom Hanks).

Asteroid City's bungalow motel is populated with several other parents and their precociously gifted children, most importantly famous actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), who develops a relationship with Augie, and her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), who develops a relationship with Woodrow. These and other subplots play out against the backdrop of the Junior Stargazer Awards, with atomic testing going on routinely in the background, and a small but existentially challenging visit from a delightfully cheesy stop-motion alien.

So Asteroid City is effectively a play within a play within a play. And the creative license Anderson takes with color and ratio and story ellipses add still more layers that undermine any one level's sense of realism even further. And we have all of this, obviously, on top of Anderson's usual, peculiarly deadpan dialogue, and his way of directing actors to give performances that are somehow simultaneously affected and affectless. Artificiality, in other words, abounds.

If one can't get a little pretentious in writing about a Wes Anderson movie, then when can one? So here I'll confess that I spent a lot of Asteroid City thinking about Bertolt Brecht's concept of the alienation effect: using deliberate artificiality to distance the audience from the characters, short-circuit empathy and identification, and force an intellectual reaction rather than an emotional one. Certainly, I think there is an intentional alienation in all of Anderson's work: the hyper-stylization, the constant acknowledging of the fourth-wall, and the flat delivery of almost every line—among other factors—combine to let us never forget that we are watching a carefully constructed illusion. Anderson's worlds are worlds that have never existed, populated with people who never lived, speaking dialogue as no one has ever spoken it. This has always been the source of my own alienation from his movies: they are such self-consciously phony pop-culture confections that I find it impossible to actually care about anyone in them.

And in Asteroid City, with its layers upon layers of aggressive artificiality, Anderson seems determined to make it clear—to any critics like me who might have been confused—that he knows this, and he does it on purpose. For poor saps like me, who have tried and failed to find real emotional substance in his movies, Anderson almost seems to be going out of his way here to tell us we're watching his movies the wrong way.

And yet I also recognize that the Brechtian analogy is useful but imperfect, and that there's more happening here than can be met with such a flippant dismissal. Brecht saw the alienation effect as being for a political, even revolutionary purpose, and I don't think there's any of that in Anderson. And despite his detachment from his characters—and the distance he carefully creates and maintains between us and them—there is also a peculiar tenderness towards them, and an emotional resonance that comes through almost as subtext. I think we see this most clearly in something like Moonrise Kingdom—my favorite of his films—where the romance between the two young protagonists is almost more intense and heartfelt because it manages to express itself through the strange, off-putting, deadpan sensibilities of Anderson's style.

And there are similar things happening in Asteroid City, where the storyline of Augie's grief is forced to fight against the postmodern alienation devices and the constrained emotional range of Anderson's direction. A late scene with Margot Robie—playing the actress who played Augie's wife, in a scene that was cut from the play/movie we have been watching—finds a real emotional poignancy, perhaps more surprising and effective for having snuck at us sideways through the metafictional framing device.

Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks in ASTEROID CITY

Tom Hanks' presence here, too, puts the tension between style and substance into generative relief. The role of Augie's gruff father-in-law was written for Bill Murray, who has appeared in every other Anderson film to date. (Murray had to pull out of this one due to COVID.) But Hanks is a very different kind of actor than Murray. Murray carries his own alienation effect with him: his energy is intrinsically disdainful, and even in his kinder and more serious roles there is something about his presence that smirks at the material and the audience. (This is one of the things that make him the quintessential Wes Anderson actor.) But Hanks is practically his screen opposite: he doesn't have an insincere or contemptuous bone in his body, so—even, presumably, playing the role exactly as written, as a severe and severely limited man—the character shines through Anderson's material and direction as an oasis of actual humanity. (His awkward but gently acquiescing interactions with his very odd granddaughters are surprisingly touching.)

Such fleeting moments of authentic human feeling fall like cool water in the emotionally parched desert of Anderson's candy-colored landscape. Could this, possibly, be the point?

Apart from accusations of excessive whimsy and terminal twee, the most common criticism of Anderson's films is their highly limited cultural lens: even when he (rarely) casts the occasional person of color (Danny Glover in The Royal Tenenbaums, Jeffrey Wright in The French Dispatch and here), Anderson's milieu and perspective is entirely, even aggressively centered in Whiteness, and specifically a very White, privileged, bourgeois world. This, certainly, has been one of my problems with his oeuvre: apart from real concerns about representation—there is absolutely no reason his casts need to be so unremittingly White—I simply do not find that world particularly interesting.

But for the first time, watching Asteroid City, I wondered if Anderson is not so much limited by that worldview as he is obsessed with exploring its inherent limitations and illusions from within. Asteroid City is—like White America's concept of itself—steeped in a cartoonish nostalgia for the "good old days" of the 1950s, and perhaps hammering home the absurd artificiality of that vision is part of Anderson's hidden purpose here. So too, perhaps, is the emotional repression: the sanitized, self-aggrandizing, uptight self-image that makes accessing and expressing such simple emotions as grief and love and desire all but impossible. Perhaps Anderson's characters themselves are as trapped in White America's delusions about itself as I sometimes feel watching his movies.

That feels like a more generous reading that I'd expected to arrive at through writing this review, and I can still only propose it as a possibility, not support it as an argument. Figuring that out would require spending a lot more time in Wes Anderson's world than I still have any desire to do. I am willing to acknowledge he is an extremely talented filmmaker worthy of admiration and further exploration. I'm even willing to believe that there is real artistic purpose to some of the very creative choices I find so off-putting and alienating. I'm just not sure I'd enjoy the effort it would take to unpack what he's trying to say, or that any of it would ultimately seem to justify the overly precious, meticulously-designed dioramas he builds to say it.

At the end, I guess I arrive back where I began. I don't think Asteroid City is a bad movie—and it might even be a great one—but it's just not my kind of movie.

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1 thought on “ASTEROID CITY (2023)”

  1. In The New Yorker Anthony Lane began with "Like everything about the new Wes Anderson film… the title is a joke" and continues a bit later with the film's sly use of Road Runner cartoons and Wile E. Coyote's doom, and then to the stylized characters ("All the characters seem to have attended Anderson School, so to speak, where the need for under-reaction, clipped and quick, has been drummed in to them…"). Doesn't sound like Lane's going to head up the Anderson fan club either…

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