With Asteroid City, director Wes Anderson goes in his farthest experimental direction yet, if his own distinctive cinematic style is not already experimental enough in its own way. Set in the 1950s in the titular small western town, we follow a group of characters who are present to win awards as junior space cadets. Things change when an alien arrives and the characters are quarantined. While still trading in Anderson’s whimsical storybook style, this is among his most melancholic work as the film ruminates on life, death, and processing grief.
Of course, this is only part of the tale. This story is placed within a framing device wherein Bryan Cranston plays a Rod Sterling like host, narrating that Asteroid City is a play being put on for a limited time. This meta narrative is in sharp contrast to the bright pastels of the central story, featuring a stark black-and-white approach and depicting the “behind the scenes” of the play. In doing so, the film also continues a theme Anderson started exploring in The French Dispatch by commenting on the nature of storytelling and offering perhaps some speculation as to why we do it. Or at least why he does it.
If this all sounds overly arthouse, rest assured, Asteroid City is still thoroughly a Wes Anderson film. With visual gags galore, this may also be among his funniest films. There is so much subtle humor, whether in the details packed into a frame or in the ironic and goofy behavior of his characters. It’s a fascinating feat when even an actor’s performance is a signature style of the director, as is the case here. You can tell his loyal troupe of actors love working with him and his stylized worlds.
As usual, there are so many A-list actors, even in small roles, that to mention all of them and the little eccentrics they bring is impossible for a concise review. The lead performances of Jason Schwartzman and Scarlet Johansson, though, are both excellent. Schwartzman in particular brings the unique energy of his washed out and broken characters, while maintaining the wry wit that makes his characters so appealing. Alongside Johannson, this performance is what lets the film have its distinctly Anderson take on grief and existence.
It’s a film that wrestles with what really matters when our lives are a blink in eternity. Does any of it matter when it is so fleeting? The film touches a bit on religion, as do almost all of Anderson’s films. Anderson is no religious ideologue, though, and the use of faith here is part of a larger rumination on the nature of an eternity after life, and whether there will be a conscious one that matters, and the comfort it may or may not bring to people. These ideas express themselves both subtly and overtly, as the framing device begins to directly comment on “what is this all about?” Anderson handles these ideas with poignancy and humor, able to be both cheery and melancholic in equal measure in a given scene. Such is his skill as a master of tone.
Asteroid City is not Anderson’s cleanest work, however. It has a meandering quality to it, and the framing device often feels like a cut away from the charming, bright, and interesting storytelling Anderson is known for into something inherently less interesting. That said, as previously mentioned, Anderson’s framing device goes off in a new direction for Anderson, a turn one another reviewer has compared to Ingmar Bergman. Whether this fully works or not, it makes for some striking sequences. This stands as one of Anderson’s most assured works yet, and whether one counts themselves among the those worn out by his increasingly stylized filmmaking, the excellence of his craft is hard to question. As one who thoroughly enjoys latter-day Anderson, I believe Asteroid City is near the pinnacle of his filmography.