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REVIEW – “Asteroid City”: Anderson Shoots for the Moon, Lands on a Curve

How fortunate could we be to live in a time where even the most eccentric and particular of filmmakers can find their way dabbling into dense meta territory? Mild apprehension aside. Wes Anderson is keen to dabble on his 12th feature, following up on the broad yet scatterbrained anthology that was The French Dispatch. This time, he is returned to a simple, single plot stretching across time, space, and highly varying perspectives. And the result is nothing short of amusing, if not also a smidge empty. Asteroid City marks the auteur’s first real foray into both science fiction and the politics of big-name theatricality. Not so much mid-century American subculture, and the related simplistic romance working in tandem. Unlike Moonrise Kingdom, however, any sort of warmth and realism might be lost on the page. 

Between Anderson and frequent writing partner Roman Coppola, that might not be the only idea missing in the final cut of this almost idyllic adventure, splitting from the offset into two different viewing perspectives. A choice of Anderson’s that could count as him breaking from the norm, and yet a reflection of why ‘normal’ needn’t apply to his filmmaking language. Set in 1955, we first see the story of Asteroid City established as a stage play adapted for a live TV broadcast. Its writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) are at odds with how to effectively run the show, as it takes place before the audience. Could it serve as a mirror into Anderson’s creative process? Yes. Though not a completely effective one as that does wind up distracting in places from an otherwise substantial A-plot. 

Once the characters are established, in a square aspect ratio, in black and white, the actors waiting in the wings for the illusion to manifest, we bear witness to sweeping vistas reminiscent of a Roadrunner and Coyote cartoon blended with the bright colors akin to an old Louis Marx toy model. And to long tracking shots occupying a 360-degree swivel to capture every minute detail of the sleepy desert hamlet, even routine A-bomb tests. Per usual, Anderson’s regular production designer Adam Stockhausen and DP Robert Yeoman take influences to heart, mesmerizing the eyes in a perpetual trance. It should be just a placid roadside watering hole, but simple touches amp up its charm. Conveniently, as a hardy band of science nerds roll in to mark “Asteroid Day.” The timely occasion observed annually when a spherical meteor landed in town, in the center of a giant crater. 

Leading this large tourist group is war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), zigzagging across the country while dropping off son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to the weekend’s science fair element. A broken part in their car leaves them stranded both physically, and emotionally, with Augie skittishly breaking the news the kids’ mother-in-law had died following a lengthy illness. He calls up father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) for support, just as he finally shares the info, opening the door to his processing of grief. A bit uncertain, skeptical, but aiming to be resolute, something Schwartzman nails to no end. Finding a kindred spirit in visiting actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) helps to mellow his mind. It only lasts a fleeting time, before it’s hit with stress again when an alien swoops in to steal the famed meteor, triggering the community into quarantine and a media blackout. 

All these events occur with Anderson effectively performing an on-the-fly dissertation of his own work, and the methods to his madness, a scholarly explanation of why a filmmaking mind does what they do. To see him go so analytical should be one more for his collection of quirks. If nothing else, it shows his growing creative maturity, like Schwartzman’s evolution as a continual standout in his regular company, carrying Johansson aloft in a fit of dry chemistry. This is certainly his moment as a character performer, just like Rushmore was his moment as a youth breakout. And to share time with Hanks on screen – and he’s a steady fixture charting a course of wide-eyed wisdom – only humbles such a talent whose rise has been a slow burn, but a delightful one at that. 

However, Asteroid loses me when it can’t slide past its avant-garde crossroads, blending sci-fi with the experimental theater scene of that era. Either would’ve made for its own unique feature, but when introducing the proscenium angle against a far superior, yet still unassuming, mainline story, it proves to be needlessly jarring. Were it not consequential to the scope of overall character development, it would be nothing short of a missed opportunity lacking necessity. Perhaps the two were meant to be separate experiences, only held together by figurative bubblegum, with a certain distance between the two, intersecting only when warranted. Done properly, the staging of a historical event or period of fervent innovation should be cause for celebration. Anderson’s stuck with a conundrum unable to answer for itself, placing the two perspectives on opposing tracks. He still makes a fair effort to try, only for the main plot to win out. 

And that might not be such a terrible thing when the focus is most opportune. Asteroid City belongs to the titular arid oasis, and its endlessly quizzical ensemble whose merits would leave David Lynch or Christopher Guest quivering in awe. Their combined efforts are a firm glue, stronger than gum, the catalyst holding Anderson and Coppola’s script together from its seams. And ever so infrequently, raising its tonal acuity. The town mechanic (Matt Dillon) can forebode doom with a mere technical examination. Dr. Hickenlooper (a ferocious Tilda Swinton) can exude systematic astrological clarity by mere statements alone. And kindly hotel manager (Steve Carell) possesses the skill to sell anything, including plots of land the size of a tennis court. 

There’s even the space for romance and music to converge, with Venn diagram-like symmetry. One still wishes for Wes to attempt a full-on lyrical feat with close friends Alexandre Desplat and Jarvis Cocker. But to hear singing cowboy Montana (a charming Rupert Friend) woo the heart doting schoolteacher June (Maya Hawke), it’s the closest we’ll get. Even if Woodrow’s kinship with fellow stargazer Dinah (Grace Edwards), bears a more welcome idea of innocent amiability. 

And that is the crux of Anderson’s leitmotif pattern invoking the spirit of Asteroid City. He has no trouble capturing a folksy, laidback attitude amongst his offbeat mesh of townsfolk and theater folk. All of whom are trying to make sense of their unique universe, or life, or everything. The trouble is too simple, yet oblivious to repair – there is no balance when attempting to sustain focus on all three. And the result is an almost solid trip that still pales against some of Wes’s more complete ventures but manages to have fun. At its core is a fractured family dynamic, with closure a priority, but a pathway muddled. Schwartzman, Hanks, and Ryan all rise to this major occasion, and know not to fumble. Brody and Norton insist on the same confidence but don’t hold a candle. Two distinct universes telling the same story in diverse ways, trying to coexist but knowing it’s unfeasible. For what it gets right, I was satisfied. For where it can’t decide what path to take, it left me wanting just a little bit more. More evenly placed character building, not so much zany antics next time. (B; 3.5/5) 

Asteroid City expands into wide release June 23; rated PG-13 for brief graphic nudity, smoking and some suggestive material; 105 minutes.