Asteroid City review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City feels like a massive recovery from the messy assembly of The French Dispatch. For a film with an even more bursting cast than the previous film, this 1950s sci-fi satire manages to touch on something more profound, maintaining focus among its crowded assortment. There’s a brilliant moment at the climax where a handful of the characters are all present and echo the film's core theme. It’s weirdly surreal and yet wickedly directed at being a film about coming to terms with death.
Two parallel stories are going on within this colorful picture. The primary story is a stylish depiction of a desert town known as Asteroid City, acting as a tourist destination and home to a junior scientist convention. Attending the event for his kid Woodrow (Jake Ryan) is the grieving father, Augie (Jason Schwartzman), and his three creative daughters in tow. He’s trying to find the right way to tell his children about their mother’s passing, but there’s never a right moment. Things only get weirder when an alien pops by, throwing the town into mild chaos (or about as much chaos as expected from a Wes Anderson movie).
The secondary story is the behind-the-scenes story of what went into assembling this play of Asteroid City. Actors will break character in these black-and-white scenes while the creative playwright (Edward Norton) and director (Adrien Brody) will reveal their inner lives, acting more or less as the play within the play. It is in this weird void where the existential dread becomes more accurate, breaking beyond the metaphors and subtle nature of the more pristine scenes within Asteroid City. Only in such a weird environment do the players become more comfortable with the concepts they depict on the stage. It’s also pretty fun watching Bryan Cranston as the narrator who drops in and out of cracking the fourth wall, sometimes asking if he needs to be present in certain scenes.
With such a bursting cast that soars past the screen in the opening credit crawl like a long train going over the tracks, it’s remarkable how loaded with personality in all for their few scenes. Scarlett Johansson becomes the perfect sad love interest for Augie as the washed-up actress Midge. Tom Hanks does a great job as the grumpy father-in-law to Augie, grappling with feelings about losing his daughter in a bitter yet strangely mature manner. Jeffrey Wright has the right amount of bluster as the tactile and limited-knowledge General Grif Gibson, who struggles to maintain order. Steve Carell has some charm as a steadfast motel manager, doing his best to keep his operation of vending machines and small rooms in top order. Rupert Friend dazzles as a singing cowboy who performs a musical number, a rarity in Wes Anderson movies. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the additional roles of a frustrated parent (Liev Schreiber), a quirky mechanic (Matt Dillon), an experimental acting coach (Willem Dafoe), and the odd alien (Jeff Goldblum).
It should surprise nobody that Anderson’s production design is eye-popping, making the 1950s Fiestaware style color palette look like a classic painting for every shot. What’s more remarkable is how Anderson attempts to dig deeper with this style and find a brooding sense of dread lurking in all the characters. There’s a desperation to feel something and reaffirm that love makes life worth living, even when the world seems too weird with A-bomb tests, sci-fi weaponry, and an alien in the vicinity of Earth. That’s a heavy topic and it’s thankfully given a refreshing dollop of Anderson’s dry humor, making the film strangely more heartfelt in addressing such a dark subject.
Asteroid City is the best Wes Anderson movie, perfectly blending its wondrous sets, eclectic cast, and meaningful message to tie it all together. It’s a film that knows how to evoke that retro feel, have fun with it, and make it tap into something uniquely universal. It’s a weirdly delightful film that only Anderson could weave this amazingly.