Another Wes Anderson creation, where the sheer cast alone is unfathomable in their collective talent and the twee is as twee as can be, Asteroid City, with its distinct colour pallet and deadpan performances, won’t convert any viewers over to the Wes way of watching, but those that have stuck with the auteur through his highs (The Grand Budapest Hotel) and lows (The French Dispatch) should find a sense of comfort with this weird, off-kilter comedy.
Set around the titular location – at least in some capacity (more on that later) – a desolate locale in the middle of a beautifully manufactured desert, dubbed so because it hosted the appearance of a UFO some years prior, Asteroid City hosts a hoard of interconnecting characters, with Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson leading the charge; Schwartzman (typically expressionless) as a father afraid to tell his children of their mother’s passing, and Johansson as a stoic actress who spends the majority of the film rehearsing in a method-like process for her next role.
In this strikingly beautiful peach-imbued setting, there’s the usual Anderson archetypes of the quirkiest of the quirks waxing lyrical about…well, whatever he and co-writer Roman Coppola decide to ruminate on. But all of this science-specific nonsense (which allows the always fabulous Tilda Swinton to continue being fabulous in all her oddities as a government scientist) is framed by the very meta-fictional conceit that what’s taking place is actually a documentary of sorts, and that a playwright (Edward Norton) is navigating the whole thing.
It’s an interesting premise, without question, and the opposing colour schemes of the story’s bright aesthetic to the chrome of Norton’s process makes for a visually appealing experience. The usual suspects are primarily utilised in the Norton-led story, with Jeff Goldblum and Adrien Brody making for amusing extended cameos (Goldblum, in particular, is a treat as an alien creation that lands the film’s biggest laugh), speaking to the director’s uncanny ability to attract the largest of stars for even the smallest of appearances; anyone expecting something of substance for Hong Chau or Margot Robbie will be taken aback.
Whilst the deadpan approach to comedy has usually worked for Anderson, there’s a certain risk in continuing this as there are moments in Asteroid City that play out as if he’s starting to bore himself, with the film’s emotional heart considerably dead on arrival. The dead spouse and their grieving family is one he’s toyed with before, and though recycling one’s own thematic is not a cinematic crime, it feels considerably fake here; which is saying something when all these characters feel so far removed from reality and one of the film’s major sets is a desert that looks as if it’s a backdrop lifted from a 1950’s film set.
The enthusiasm is mostly present in Asteroid City, and it’s so bizarre at times that you can’t help but still be impressed by Anderson’s creativity, but this also fails to truly generate a conversation about what he’s trying to say. Perhaps in trying a little too hard to be so grand in his storytelling gestures and attract every other name in Hollywood that isn’t booked by Christopher Nolan or, God forbid, David O. Russell, he’s forgotten that niche that made him so appealing in the first place. In scaling back his ambition and containing his stories a little neater (the aforementioned Grand Budapest secured the right balance of intimacy on a scale) we may feel a little more receptive to his peculiarity.
By no means did I dislike my trip to Asteroid City, and I could honestly watch Matt Dillon fix cars with an impossibly tiny wingnut all day (you’ll see), but in a case where the sum of its parts are actually greater than the whole, it’s ultimately a trip many might find enjoyment in without the need to revisit annually.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Asteroid City is screening in Australian theatres from August 10th, 2023.
Asteroid City was originally reviewed as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival coverage.