ASTEROID CITY
(***)-VITO CARLI

"...style is much more impressive than the content"

Superb Style Over Impressive Story

(080323) Wes Andersonís new film, Asteroid City which is only a partial success, assembles one of the most impressive ensemble casts of the year. The whole film has the feel of a highly improvised play full of celebrity cameos and good moments that is not quite finished. Appearing in the film are: Tom Hanks, Matt Dillon, Scarlett Johansen, Maya Hawke (the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman), Steve Carrell, Jason Schwartzman, Margot Robbie, Sophia Lills, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, and Bryan Cranston. But the most surprising cameo is Jarvis Coker (writer of the classic Pulp song Common People) one of the most English people who ever lived playing get this, and American cowboy. However, the seeming randomness makes it all both more unique and less satisfying.

Asteroid City is most definitely one of the yearís most colorful films (with lots of sky blue, orange, and turquoise) and it has some of the most beautiful set designs and gorgeous individual shots in recent memory. Anderson undeniably has a great distinctive directing style that he is well known for and he also is famous for his totally unique, quirky characters. Long ago, Wes Anderson films became their own distinctive genre.

Unfortunately, this is one case where the style is much more impressive than the content. The filmís story is slight and not nearly as interesting as the ones in Andersonís classic films, The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) or even the animated Fantastic Mr.Fox (!!!!). I also liked this much less than his previous film,
The French Dispatch (2022) which also featured a few of the same actors such as Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, and Jason Swartzman.

But still the characters here are so charming, and the dialogue is so witty, and the look is so dazzling that is hard to not to at least partially fall under the films spell. I may not want to see Asteroid City again right away but I would like to really visit the fictional world it is in.

Asteroid City gets its name from a small region where the film takes place which is remote and far away from major cities. The total population is only eighty-seven so it is actually a town not a city. It received its name because a meteorite crashed there five thousand years ago. So why isnít the film called Meteorite Town? Iím not sure except somehow Asteroid City sounds catchier and more impressive than Meteorite Town. Many of the characters go there to attend a kidís science conference.

This is a very meta film (Lars Von Trier did this kind of thing much better in Dogville,) and its movie-within a play within a movie with narration from Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad. The narrator tells the story of a playwright named Conrad Earp (played by Ed Norton) and all the scenes from his point of view are all shot in black and white. This character juggling by the same actors is all kind of hard to follow and it might require too much effort for a casual film viewer.

The filmís plot is set in motion when several new people arrive in the town to witness a rare celestial event or to present their inventions at a fair. But the actual big event that unifies most of the cast at the end is a really bizarre appearance of a visitor from far away which is a delightfully campy scene with intentionally fake special effects that helps redeem the film.

A widower, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman who has made his debut in Andersonís Rushmore) puts his late wifeís ashes in a Tupperware bowl and heads out to Asteroid City with his kids. Jason also plays the actor playing Augie. Augie does not tell the kids right away that their mom is deceased to spare their feelings. But the kids eventually guess and humor is generated because the kids are very emotionally detached and their response to their momís death is unexpectedly understated. It is said that the film is a meditation on mourning but no one in the film shows much actual grief, itís all internalized.

The family is on the way to visit Augieís father (played by Tom Hanks). Itís refreshing seeing the normally mainstream Tom Hanks (of Saving Private Ryan) playing such an odd, slightly irritating character in a goofy movie. Hanks, ďthe king of normalĒ is a delight in a small role portraying Steenbeckís cantankerous father-in-law Stanley Zek.

Scarlett Johansson (the Marvel Uís Black Widow) gives two of the filmís most courageous and surprisingly mature performances. She plays an actress, Mercedes (in black and white) Ford who plays Midge Campbell (in color). Midge is a famous actress and thousands adore her, but very people love or truly understand her. Fordís car model name (the whole film is set in 1956) seems to be vaguely mocking the Ď50s obsession with brand name consumerism and materialism. Also, Wes Anderson has said her character is a combination of Marilyn Monroe (another fabulously popular celebrity who couldnít find love), Kim Stanley, and Joanne Woodward.

Some sparks occur when the widower Augie has a chance meeting with Midge in a diner. They seem to bond over their shared emotional remoteness and one point Midge even says the killer line,Ē Weíre two catastrophically wounded people who donít express the depths of our pain because we donít want to.Ē
Anderson here (as with Robert Bresson) often gets his actors to under emote and downplay all their emotional scenes which might make them hard to identify with. Additionally, at times Anderson seems to make the film as complicated as he can and I can almost imagine him gleefully saying ďfollow this I dare you.Ē All of this is a bit confusing at times.

Much of the film is just weird people running into each other in random encounters having odd dialogue exchanges. Sometime the conversations or encounters lead to some even to plot development but other times they donít. The film would be more effective if it was more meaningful or if you had the sense the story was headed somewhere or if it had dramatic weight.

Peter Bradshaw was correct when he wrote in The Guardian that the film is a ďan exhilarating triumph of pure style,Ē but it is not much more than that. There is plenty here to please your eyes and some parts that will please the mind, but very little that resonates on an emotional level.

Ultimately, I had the same reaction to this film that I have to some of Tim Burtonís more slight work. Like Burton, Wes Anderson is fantastic at creating whole beautiful alternative universes that the viewer can immerse themselves in and everything on screen is put together well and looks excellent.

But also like some of Burtonís work, this film is pleasant on the eyes, but it also feels a bit hollow. But in the end this film has great style but not nearly enough substance. So although it is an interesting and worthwhile addition to Andersonís oeuvre I would hardly call it one of his best or most essential films.

Directed by:    Wes Anderson
Written by:    From a story by Wes Anderson and Roman
 Coppola
Starring:    Tom Hanks, Matt Dillon, Scarlett Johansen
Released:    06/6/23 (USA-wide)
Length:    105 minutes
Rating:    Rated PG13 for brief graphic nudity, smoking, and
 some suggestive material
Available On:    At press time the film was playing at local
 theatres

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to www.artinterviews.org and www.chicagopoetry.org. His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

Come to the next session of the Monthly Poetry Show on the first Saturday in August at Tangible Books in Bridgeport from 7-9 at 3324 South Halsted hosted by Vittorio Carli

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