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  • Writer's pictureBen Pivoz

Asteroid City


Auggie (Jason Schwartzman) talks to father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) from Asteroid City (Distributed by Focus Features)

Wes Anderson is a director whose movies are certainly not for everyone. Painstakingly stylized, quirky, with some oddly-mannered performances, it is no wonder he is divisive. His fans tend to find his work funny, clever, witty and engagingly crafted. His detractors think they’re annoyingly twee. I am firmly in the former category. I love his agonizingly detailed sets, costumes and frames. I don’t think there is a single movie I have seen more times than Rushmore. His latest, the meta-comedy Asteroid City, hits all the notes an Anderson aficionado would hope for, and then a few extra on top of that.


The story of the creation of a play, its production and the actual play itself, it is amazing to look at, amusing to listen to and intriguing to think about. A lot of directors have explored the concept of creation. Anderson doesn’t pretend this is an original approach, doing it with a wink and a nod. His trademarks are all here, including some familiar stars. This time he’s a bit more playful. One could argue that the play-within-the-movie pokes fun at his own auteur sensibilities. The result is beautiful, funny, smart and a pleasure to soak in.


Asteroid City (99 minutes, without the end credits) is the story of a group of people who gather in a small desert town in the 1950s for a junior stargazing event. It is also about the fictional playwright who wrote this story and the production that we are watching unfold.


What is remarkable is that the scenes from the play are still effective in their context, even though we are very aware that we are watching actors playing actors playing characters in this story. That may sound confusing on the surface, yet Anderson keeps his plot simple. The play is mostly about a newly widowed man with four kids who enters into a sweet friendship with a popular actress. The cast is large, so there are several subplots, but loneliness and human connection are the most prominent themes. It never gets too deep or dramatic. Even when something spectacular happens, Asteroid City is mostly concerned with how the event effects those who witnessed it. Since this is a Wes Anderson movie, their emotions aren’t necessarily expressed in straightforward ways.

As usual for him, the cast is awesome. A lot of these people have worked with him before. Those who show up here include Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Hope Davis, Steve Carrell, Jeffrey Wright, Live Schreiber, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe and a few more recognizable faces I will not spoil here. Though the performances aren’t “great,” per se, they aren’t meant to be. The actors do exactly what is needed in every role, with seemingly everybody involved getting on the right wavelength for the screenplay’s deadpan humor.


Then there are the gorgeous sets. Anderson has such an incredible eye for what he wants all of his productions to look like, down to the smallest element. Asteroid City looks fantastic, while kind of looking like a stage set. You wouldn’t expect so much brightness and color in the desert, yet he makes it make sense. Part of this is also his compositions, which sometimes call attention to the very idea of framing a shot. Whether it is a well-choreographed tracking shot, moving through multiple groups having multiple conversations, or two characters talking to each other through open windows, with the desert in the background, the artifice is obvious, and really well-designed.


If you can appreciate the blurring of these ideas, you are probably already well-acclimated to the world of Wes Anderson and I highly recommend Asteroid City. If not, then I’d be shocked if you made it this far into this review. It is extremely unlikely to convert non-fans, but this fan found it to be delightful.


4¼ out of 5


Cast:

Jason Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck

Jake Ryan as Woodrow

Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell

Grace Edwards as Dinah

Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak

Maya Hawke as June

Rupert Friend as Montana

Edward Norton as Conrad Earp

Bryan Cranston as Host


Directed and Screenplay by Wes Anderson

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