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FEATURING: , Jake Ryan, Scarlett Johansson,
PLOT: Playwright Conrad Earp writes “Asteroid City,” about a photojournalist visiting the titular location with his gifted son for a Junior Stargazers convention; everyone is stranded there when an extraterrestrial event causes the town to be quarantined.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: We’ve been waiting and waiting for Wes to go full weird; he takes his swat with Asteroid City. It’s also the weirdest movie Tom Hanks has ever appeared in—a low bar, for sure, but that has to count for something.
COMMENTS: Skipping over the prologue for the moment, Asteroid City is everything you expect from a Wes Anderson movie: symmetrical, meticulous, stylized, deadpan, with a large cast of familiar faces portraying well-defined quirky characters snapping out witty dialogue. The locale is a mid-century America desert village—a one-road stop with no more than a gas station, diner, motel, observatory, train tracks, and an unfinished on-ramp to nowhere—with atomic tests periodically sprouting mushroom clouds in the background. The color palette is turquoise skies and beige sand, with the occasional burst of radioactive orange, bathed in (as the stage directions instruct) clean, unforgiving light. Anderson manages to make shot-on-location look like shot-on-a-sound-stage; you’re amazed when a car drives off into the distance and doesn’t crash into a matte painting backdrop, but somehow just keeps going. The film locates itself in a gee-whiz Cold War fantasy, a mythical time where bright middle-schoolers design their own jet packs and particle beams and everyone has complete faith in the US military—and why shouldn’t they? They haven’t lost a war yet.
All of this makes for a perfect sandbox for Anderson to drop what may be the most impressive cast he’s yet worked with into. Wes stalwart Schwartzman takes the lead as a stoic pipe-smoking war photographer, with a “brainiac” son and a trio of elementary school triplets (who think they’re witches) in tow. Scarlett Johansson plays a movie star attracted to battered woman roles. Tom Hanks shows up as a grumpy grandpa (in a role that was probably originally written with.) Steve Carrell is the solicitous local motel owner (beginning almost every sentence with “I understand.”) is an astronomer. is a mechanic. There are various-sized cameos by , , and, um, . Furthermore, a gaggle of students, parents, teachers, military personnel, singing cowboys, and others inhabit the hamlet, making up a real, if temporary, community. And yet, the stage never feels too crowded; everyone gets their moment to shine in this mosaic of comedy.
It plays like a quite usual, sophisticated, twee Anderson outing, except that it isn’t. In the first place, the artifice is doubled (or tripled), since the main story is, in fact, a play written by a Tennessee Williamsesque playwright (Edward Norton) and directed by an East Coast workaholic (Adrian Brody), whom we see at work developing the production. And we’re further introduced to these characters through a television documentary hosted by Brian Cranston (who occasionally, and amusingly, drifts into the theatrical production). The action occasionally shifts from the main story (in widescreen color) to the fictional background material (in black and white, Academy ratio). At about the film’s midpoint, Anderson inserts what may be the most audacious—and hilarious—scene he’s ever shot. (You might guess what the event is, but never in a million years would you guess the manner in which it happens.) And the third act goes especially bonkers, as the playwright explains that he wants the finale to be a case of the entire cast dreaming due to their shared cosmic experience, and enlists an actor’s studio to help stimulate his creativity. More fourth wall breaking follows, there’s a hoedown featuring a song that starts with the lyric “Dear alien, who art in Heaven,” and a repetitive chant at the climax flirts with the surreal. The film doesn’t always hang together, but the dialogue is razor sharp, the cast is magnetic, and the laughs are abundant. I don’t know if it’s Wes’ best movie, but it is his boldest and most consistently surprising.
Asteroid City doesn’t seem to know what it wants to say, and that is, it seems, what it wants to say. “I don’t understand the play,” Schwartzman complains, breaking character. The answer is that he doesn’t have to understand it. The author doesn’t. He just needs to act it.
The Asteroid City DVD/Blu-ray comes with a short making of featurette. We would not be surprised to see a more elaborate release down the line (thelikes to publish every Anderson feature they can get their mitts on.)
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The purest distillation of what this director brings to cinema, it’s beautiful to look at, surreal, nostalgic and funny in a weird, distanced way.”–Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle (contemporaneous)