It’s unfair to be tasked with reviewing Asteroid City after just a single viewing. A simple-seeming hangout movie, replete with dry, fast-talking humor, is hiding one of Wes Anderson’s most complex and ostensibly introspective narratives yet. All of the stylistic markings are there, yet this feels like as big a leap forward in the application of his style since just his last movie (the excellent The French Dispatch) as has occurred across his entire filmography prior.
Here, the style has a reason to exist. What we’re watching (and forgive me if I miss a layer) is a cinematic recreation of a play, the behind the scenes story of which is being performed as a play, which is being presented on television. Maybe a more accurate way to say it is that we’re watching a movie of a television show about a play within a play that is being presented cinematically, albeit with the general style of a play. Maybe that just confuses things. I don’t know.
What I do know is this multi-tiered layering of meta material is exactly the type of overwrought self-awareness that critics of Wes Anderson, myself occasionally included, find to be a hurdle to engagement. This isn’t to say he’s ever made a bad movie (for my money, he hasn’t), but rather that it typically takes 2-3 viewings before I end up being able to dance to his tune. With Asteroid City, however, the impact was immediate and gargantuan — the fact that the movie is laugh-out-loud hilarious just adds to the magic. Yet even though the film’s ability to resonate is apparent within the first few minutes of its runtime, it’s also quite clear that any singular read of the material is going to change with every new viewing, partially because there’s just so much going on, and partially because the multiple layers of story/plot occurring in every moment are sure to interact in ways that will only manifest once the initial onslaught of gorgeous images, excellent performances, and riotously funny fast-talk are allowed to fade into the overall texture of the film.
If there’s a main character, it takes the form of Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman, dressed suspiciously like his uncle) a war photographer and recent widower who, along with his four children, are staying at a cheap little novelty hotel in rural Asteroid City, a desert town defined by a gigantic crater at its center. The Steenbecks, along with a large ensemble cast of characters (it would be easier to list who isn’t in this movie) are in town for a Stargazer’s convention, during which all will be privy to witness an astrological anomaly that occurs right around this time of year. Augie hasn’t told his kids about the passing of their mother quite yet, a fact which chaps the ass of his no-nonsense, and well-off father-in-law, Stanley Zak (a positively curmudgeonly Tom Hanks, seemingly standing in for Bill Murray — and doing a hell of a job). Also here for the convention are movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), a schoolteacher (Maya Hawke), a mechanic (Matt Dillon), and a few other parent/child pairings (Steve Park/Ethan Josh Lee, Hope Davis/Sophia Lillis, Liev Schreiber/Aristou Meehan). And since this is a Wes Anderson movie, Tilda Swinton is there too. She’s great. She does not play the alien. Jeff Goldblum does.
That’s not a spoiler, because “Jeff Goldblum as the Alien” is listed in the opening credits.
What follows is your typically atypical Wes Anderson ensemble piece in which a bunch of heavily pathologized weirdos are confronted with something much larger than their stubborn little idiosyncrasies, and the fallout which occurs when their small viewpoints are forced to reckon with an as yet unfathomable new perspective.
This takes the form of speedily spoken, dryly funny repartee, punctuated with absurdly honest, deceptively penetrating drama that makes you chuckle while also lamenting the inescapability of the human condition and the fact that we’re all doomed to being weird lil guys with weird little hang ups that are never gonna make sense to anybody even if we explain it to them literally but it’s still important that we try.
Ya know, like Wes Anderson does.
But now I sound like I’m reducing his work to a bunch of tropes, when I mean to do quite the opposite. Anderson’s path to the strangeness of humanity is distinctly his own. It can be imitated, but never duplicated. To this point, Asteroid City is hitting theaters just as a trend parodying Anderson’s style is hitting TikTok. As is standard with the social media platform that I just can’t seem to figure out, these videos are a mixed bag. Some creators are more jeering about it, but a lot are doing it out of love for the uncategorizable filmmaker. But what bonds these videos is their unintended conclusion: anyone can recognize the aesthetic tools that Wes Anderson uses, but only he can make them sing.
Here, said tools are employed to demarcate the different metatextual layers, the outermost of which is in the stark black and white of, say, Manhattan, while the innermost takes after a postcard you’d find on a spinning rack in a souvenir shop. The edit finds visual gags and dramatic beats that land without calling too much attention to themselves. Even in the more dramatic/emotional moments, a sense of play pervades.
Given a few more viewings I could likely suss out some small notion of what Anderson is trying to accomplish with the multiple layers of text. I’m sure its machinations will reveal countless pieces of material that I didn’t even know to notice. But an inaugural viewing is not a cryptic one. A surreal moment during act three hits with full effect, even as the ‘reality’ of each layer grows unwieldy. Asteroid City leans into the unwieldiness and then closes its seams just in time for the credits. It’s a mammoth feat that no TikToker could hope to recreate by shooting silly skits over symmetrical backdrops.
Unless Wes Anderson is on TikTok. Is he? He’d do well there.
Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Starring Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright
Rated PG-13, 105 minutes