By Megan Bianco
As Wes Anderson fans and movie viewers have noticed, the man is at a point in his career where his ambition has no limits, and he’s not afraid to take full advantage of his resources.
He succeeded in creating an epic period dramedy with The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), then stumbled a bit with the retro anthology The French Dispatch (2021). Now, he returns with another star-studded cast in a pastiche of mid-20th century whimsy with Asteroid City.
The story mainly revolves around Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer and single father of four kids, and Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a movie star with a 15-year-old daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards).
They’re all stuck in “Asteroid City,” a fictional city in Nevada, while Dinah and Augie’s teenage son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), compete in the Junior Stargazer Awards for kids involved with astronomy.
During the convention, a real alien encounter becomes eminent and government agents are revealed to be secretly operating behind the motel where the characters are staying.
Various supporting roles include Augie’s father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks), Junior Stargazer host Gen. Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), local scientist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), schoolteacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke), cowboy Montana (Rupert Friend) and Steve Carell as the motel manager.
What isn’t included in Asteroid City’s marketing is that the desert and sci-fi elements of the movie are actually an old-school teleplay being played out by actors and a TV crew in 1955.
Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Bryan Cranston and Margot Robbie make appearances during these behind-the-scenes sequences, which are cleverly subverted in black-and-white cinematography, while the TV plot scenes are in color.
What else can you say about a quality Wes Anderson flick at this point? While his latest efforts can feel a bit bloated, especially compared to his modest roots of Bottle Rocket (1996) and Rushmore (1998), he has really mastered the art of coining multi-layered colorful personalities. He’s now openly prioritizing atmosphere and character/performance over plot, and that isn’t always bad.
Asteroid City is a tongue-in-cheek, non-linear satire on his own industry while also paying homage, like usual. It’s nice to see his longtime regular actor, Schwartzman, take the lead again, and Johansson fits in quite nicely in Anderson’s twee world.
Though I think there were aspects in the film that could have been expanded more—such as the desert going under quarantine being reminiscent of the real COVID-19 quarantine three years ago—Asteroid City is near-perfect eye candy for those who appreciate the cinema of Anderson.