Synopsis: World-changing events spectacularly disrupt the itinerary of a Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention in an American desert town circa 1955.
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Jeff Goldblum
Director: Wes Anderson
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: A few years ago, I was elbowing my way through an estate sale when I came across a pristine oversize coffee table book on the American West. If you’ve been to one of these sales before, you know that there’s often little time to consider your options, so after flipping through a few pages and seeing some exquisite photography, I decided on a purchase for the easy asking price of $10. Later that day, I lounged around casually looking at the fantastic pictures documenting the people, places, and things that were too vibrant to fade into the history of legend. I couldn’t believe what a find I found; clearly, this was something the owner had treasured, and I was shocked it was still around when I arrived. It was fate.
Then I looked closer at the text.
All the text in the book, all of it, was that nonsense typography that was used as a placeholder for the actual writing of the author. No captions, identifying descriptions, or illustrative prose took you to the same place the whimsical photographs had done so visually. It was a misprinted copy sold for cheap. Of course, the book was left for some chump like me, but at least I had the pictures to keep me company.
Watching Wes Anderson’s new film Asteroid City was like paging through this crisp tome. It’s a superb exercise in production design and a feast for the eyes (the nicest thing you can do for them, aside from sleep), but it makes absolutely no sense when it comes time to need to understand it. Sure, you can squint and try to force it to make sense, but you’re connecting the dots the filmmaker hasn’t bothered to put into any workable order in the first place. That makes for a mighty frustrating experience, especially for those equipped with an Anderson decoder ring already tuned to his frequency.
Legendary playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton, Glass Onion) wrote a play, Asteroid City, that is being broadcast on national television in the mid-1950s. As the black-and-white program progresses, it transitions to a full-fledged color presentation (or is it real life?) following the events that transpired in a small town over an increasingly strange few weeks. Centered around a Junior Stargazer convention and the kooky families and scientists that converge to celebrate, the arrival of an unexpected visitor throws things further out of whack. Now, as everyone is quarantined and forced to make do with a new normal, how will they adjust to the possibility of global change?
It’s not hard to decipher that Anderson has made a COVID-adjacent movie and wants to make a semi-statement about the bubble we’ve all been gradually emerging from. That’s all well and good, but even that message starts to get lost amid the falderol of its twee-ness run amuck. No one in Asteroid City (the place, the movie, or its “real” life interstitials) can have a straight conversation, preferring to talk in a broken code that even Alan Turing would have trouble deciphering. I longed for good actors like Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks), as a widowed father denying himself his grief, and Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), playing a starlet so bored with her life she considers changing which shoulder she slumps onto be a highlight of her day, to get a chance for their characters to go somewhere, rather than be stuck in Anderson’s nonsensical dialogue.
Though Robert Yeoman’s (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) cinematography, Adam Stockhausen’s (West Side Story) production design, and Milena Canonero’s (Carnage) costume design guarantee you the kind of jaw-dropping visuals you’ve come to expect from a Wes Anderson flight of fancy (all should clear their award season schedules so they can attend every ceremony), they are the candy-colored icing on top of a russet potato of a script. Anderson attracts such extraordinary talent, and wow, this cast (Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Steve Carrell, Margot Robie) is tops, but zowie, does this film crater out as one of the more oversized duds Anderson has been responsible for.
Reaching his zenith with Moonrise Kingdom, still the best balance of the outlandish while balancing heart, Anderson almost touched Oscar glory with The Grand Budapest Hotel and has also found some success with animated projects The Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs. His last film, The French Dispatch in 2021, was a costly fiasco, and even if Asteroid City is being embraced more by his critics, I can’t ever imagine revisiting it. Maybe on mute. Only on mute.