Wes Anderson is not on social media. This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the director’s man-out-of-time persona and worldview; the only way I can imagine him reading tweets or Instagram posts at all is via bespoke, mimeographed printouts. It is entirely possible, then, that he is unaware of the plague of AI-generated “What if Wes Anderson directed…” videos which have spread like weeds across the internet in recent months. The videos are all pretty much the same– Bill Murray as Gandalf or Jason Schwartzman as Harry Potter, standing deadpan center-frame over quaint chamber music and a “whimsical” narrator– but they speak to our tendency as viewers to boil any artist with a distinctive style down to a handful of recognizable, easily caricatured tics.
Whether or not Anderson has seen any of these videos, his latest film, Asteroid City, could simultaneously be read as a double-down and a repudiation of those who would fit him into a box. On the one hand, it is as insanely stylized and manicured as any film he has made, and carries his signature nesting-doll framing devices to an extreme that feels almost like parody in itself. But there is also a thorny complexity here, both emotionally and stylistically, which could never be spat out by some tech-hack’s software program. While I can’t say I love it as much as The French Dispatch (which, as I’ve written here before, is a film very dear to me), it is easily Anderson’s weirdest film since The Life Aquatic, and one of the most impressive of his career.
Asteroid City is a difficult film to synopsize, not least because it’s essentially two films in one. In Movie A, Asteroid City is a tiny Southwestern town (pop. 87) somewhere in the American Atom Age. A disparate cast of pilgrims to the town’s annual “Asteroid Day,” celebrating the impact which formed the town’s central crater (which is somehow known to the day, despite occurring some 5000 years earlier), are quarantined following the arrival of a spindly, stop-motion alien in a twinkly, green starship. Meanwhile, in Movie B, Asteroid City is the name of a play, written by drawling playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and originally staged in the vibrant theater scene of 1950s New York. Movie B runs as a recurring counterpoint, with the actors of Movie A playing the actors who originated their roles. To complicate matters further, Movie B is presented as a 1950s telecast hosted by a Serling-esque Bryan Cranston, meaning that they may actually be playing actors playing the actors.
This all becomes very confusing if you stop to puzzle it out– a thing which Anderson seldom slows down long enough to allow, but which I, unfortunately, am forced to do as a critic. So let’s take it one movie at a time, starting with A. There is a tendency to label each film the director makes “the most Wes Anderson movie of his career,” and at first blush Asteroid City is no different; you’ve got the immaculately fussy production design, the sprawling cast of quirky, hyperliterate characters, and, yes, the smack-dab-in-the-middle shot composition. Scratch the surface, however, and you’ll find much more than meets the eye. Consider the establishing shot when the first of the characters land in Asteroid City: the camera turns on a seemingly endless 360, revealing on each pass a new sight gag or bit of character business (I’m particularly fond of the half-finished overpass to nowhere with a hastily written sign attributing its abandonment to “route miscalculation”). The dialogue scenes, meanwhile, are staged with remarkable invention, with characters placed in every conceivable combination on the X, Y, and Z axes. It is here that we see the fundamental difference between Anderson and his android imitators: a computer program is designed to turn around results in a manner of seconds, while Anderson clearly spends days thinking of little else but his weird little characters.
His many weird little characters, I should add. Asteroid City has such a sprawling cast– two sprawling casts, really– that it makes Nashville look like My Dinner with Andre. Whether through amount of screen time or sheer force of personality, two leads emerge in grizzled war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and slightly faded Hollywood ingenue Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Schwartzman, of course, made his screen debut playing precocious wiz-kid Max Fischer in Anderson’s breakout Rushmore. Here, Schwartzman plays father to a wiz-kid of his own (Eighth Grade’s Jake Ryan, who is so like Shwartzman in appearance and manner that I had to check to confirm he has no Coppola blood in him). Augie is clearly a preternatural talent himself, but he has been so ground down by the horrors of war that he doesn’t even have the emotional capacity to tell his kids that their mother died several weeks earlier. Johansson, for her part, is playing a tragic starlet in the Gloria Grahame/Veronica Lake mold, desperate to be more renowned for her acting than for her looks or tabloid presence. Her repeated insistence that “I’m actually a gifted comedienne” is a familiar defense of many a Golden-Age Hollywood bombshell, but it’s easy to imagine Johansson finding her own truth, as her own comic chops are frequently overlooked; indeed, her ease in rat-a-tat screwball comedy makes her such a natural fit for the director’s world that it’s a bit surprising this is her live-action Anderson debut.
The dichotomies of these characters sum up Asteroid City, and Anderson’s body of work, in a nutshell: quick and funny and ridiculous, but also steeped in sadness. Even more than most Anderson’s films, Asteroid City is a visual treat; every prop, from the poolside martini vending machine to the alien spacecraft itself, was clearly made by hand, and its unique color grading– in which every shot is tuned somewhere between three-strip Technicolor and a hand-colored postcard– is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. And the film is charming and silly and often laugh-out-loud funny (it’s been several weeks since I’ve seen it, and I still chuckle at late-breaking Anderson MVP Jeffrey Wright as a tough-talking general: “It’s a telegram from the president… He’s furious!”). But, as in all of Anderson’s films, there is that underlying melancholy which adds depth to what could be a simple piffle. It’s difficult to read its scenes of quarantined characters communicating between windows as anything but Anderson’s take on the COVID-19 lockdown. And Augie, in particular, is perhaps Anderson’s most tragic and broken character since Richie Tenenbaum, his sadness clearly coming from a deeply personal place (it’s tempting to read the progression of his leading man’s characters as a reflection of Anderson’s own weariness of aging, though you wouldn’t get that impression from his endlessly affable public image). Anderson is often knocked for his layers of artifice, but it doesn’t take much digging to see that he’s one of our most emotionally forthright filmmakers.
Still, there is that artifice– that Movie B. Shot in stark black & white, the theater scenes are equally funny and well-realized, but it’s hard not to see them as a deflection from the emotional core of the film. By framing the A-story as a work of fiction and cutting away from moments of perceived earnestness, Anderson threatens to sever our (earned) emotional connection with its characters. Less charitably, one could read these cutaways as a cheat, particularly during the denouement (a shame, since the police chef sequence in The French Dispatch proved Anderson a surprisingly solid director of action sequences). What’s more, the scenes set in Asteroid City never really read like a play– certainly not as recognizably as the stories in The French Dispatch could have been New Yorker articles, or The Grand Budapest Hotel could have been a beloved novelistic memoir– calling into question the need for the framing device in the first place. Curiously, in a press conference shortly before the film’s premiere, Anderson revealed that the original impetus behind the film was his desire to make a film about the Actor’s Studio scene of the 1950s. In that light, it seems that the story may have gotten away from him, and he perhaps should have separated the two threads into separate movies. The scenes within Asteroid City are, by any measure, the emotional core of the film, and it’s not always clear what the theater scenes contribute beyond an excuse for Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe to riff on Tennessee Williams and Lee Strasbourg.
But, on the other hand, perhaps that’s enough. For all his imitators, both in film and online, Anderson exists in a genre of one, and as such it feels unfair to judge his films against a more conventional approach. Though the theater scenes don’t always feel of a piece with the rest of the film, they are terrifically entertaining (particularly Adrien Brody as the play’s two-fisted director), and I can’t say I’d wish to see them taken out. After all, in Anderson’s peculiar vision, excess is largely part of the point, and, even at their most ungainly, his films would be lesser with any element removed. Asteroid City is not a perfect movie, but it is irresistible; I caught it at an early press screening several weeks ago, and each weekend since I’ve bemoaned the fact that I was unable to go see it again. Familiar as his tics may be at this point, there will never be another Wes Anderson– human or otherwise.
dir. Wes Anderson
Opens Friday, 6/23 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre and Somerville Theatre