Whenever I review a Wes Anderson film, it’s admittedly done through the lens of someone who’s very hit or miss with the filmmaker. Usually, his animated movies really charm me, while more of the live-action efforts than not fall flat. So, when I say that Asteroid City is pretty much a garden variety Anderson effort, that means something different to me than to some of you. For those of you who dig on his work, you’re likely to be delighted. For those in my boat, it’s likely to be a lesser, albeit slightly more effective than usual, work.
Asteroid City is pretty much what you expect from Anderson, with the added bonus of some new members of his ensemble really shining. A few of these performances are really some of the best that the writer/director has had up his sleeve in some time. Throw in the normal impeccable visuals and somewhat standoffish story and, well…it’s Wes Anderson.
A framing device sets the stage, framing the movie as filmed play for a television production. There’s a host (Bryan Cranston) presenting it, claiming Asteroid City is a play by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), directed by Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) and utilizing a cast from the drama group run by Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe). Then, we’re dropped into the action. The year is 1955. The town is a fictional one in the American Southwest, with a minuscule population of 87. A Junior Stargazer convention is taking place there, which is what has brought folks like newly widowed war photographer Augie Steinbeck (Jason Schwartzman), as well as movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), plus their children. Augie’s father in law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) has arrived too, urging Augie to tell his children about their mother’s passing. These individuals, among many others are about to be thrown for a bit loop.
I won’t say what happens, but once a world-changing event occurs, everyone in town is quarantined by the United States government, under the command of General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright). While some panic, others are just bored. As for Augie and Midge, their daily conversations across two window panes begins to suggest a romance. Forced to essentially shelter in place, their experience begins to suggest a happier future for them both.
Part of why Anderson’s latest effort doesn’t fully bounce off of me is this cast. In particular, newcomers to his troupe like Tom Hanks and especially Scarlett Johansson shine, while Jason Schwartzman has never been better. Hanks is relishing just being a small part of the crew, that’s for sure. Johansson and Schwartzman have lovely chemistry, with the former tapping into her old-school starlet charms, while the latter gets to be brooding yet lovable. Adrien Brody and Jeffrey Wright are certainly making the most of their limited screen time, as are Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, and Liev Schreiber, There’s also Hope Davis and Stephen Park as parents at the convention (both very enjoyable), as well as Steve Carell getting laughs as a Hotel Manager with some interesting ways to make a buck. The rest of the stacked ensemble includes Hong Chau, Matt Dillon, Grace Edwards, Rupert Friend, Jeff Goldblum, Maya Hawke, Tony Revolori, Margot Robbie, Jake Ryan, Liev Schreiber, Tilda Swinton, and more. Overall, it’s one of the more consistent ensembles for this particular auteur.
Filmmaker Wes Anderson, once again co-writing with Roman Coppola and directing, marches to the beat of his own drummer. Now, the framing device here does not work in the slightest, but the actual moments in the town are largely solid. If not for how it opens and closes, this would be a pretty simple lark for Anderson and one I might have more completely embraced. Of course, it looks beautiful, with impeccable production design. It’s just that framing device, taking a light and whimsical tale and giving it a pompous aspect that it did not need. Compare that to a moment in the middle that provided me with a huge laugh and you really can’t reckon the two.
Asteroid City won’t win over any new converts to the church of Anderson, but those like me who are resistant to his charms may well find this one less than objectionable. The more you like him, the more you’ll like this one. So, if you’re not among my line of thinking, add a half star to this review. Either way, while I’m certainly somewhat mixed on it, my thumb pointed more upwards than usual for him…