Directed by Wes Anderson
Written by Roman Coppola and Wes Anderson
I believe I said upon the release of The Grand Budapest Hotel that Wes Anderson had, with that film, achieved his final form. I was wrong and I'm ashamed to have underestimated him, so while The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun outright dares all of us to make the exact same claim, I don't think I have it in me. There might not be any such thing as peak Anderson. [He's] perpetually approaching some unknowable point that will forever elude him because that's kind of his whole deal. I'll only say I can't imagine how he could take it further.
Fiddle with the names a little, and you could probably use that same paragraph to start off a review of any Wes Anderson picture since 2004's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. The reason Anderson remains one of our most exciting working directors and the beloved of millions, including me, is the same reason he so thoroughly aggravates millons more: over the past twenty-odd years, he's mastered the art of repeating himself in such a way that the longer he does it the more himself he keeps becoming. So the words I used to describe The French Dispatch were wise, except that when I said, "I can't imagine how he could take it further," I obviously should have added, "but I'm sure he can."
Or can he? I don't know that he has. The notion that Anderson has been unaware of his own Andersonism—this mental image we have of the hipster savant gliding through life remaining both oblivious to his own insularity and impervious to the criticism he's garnered—is pleasant and romantic. It's a notion that Anderson has, perhaps, actively cultivated. It's not true, of course. So maybe it sounds stupid to say it aloud, but I think it might help me understand what his newest effort, Asteroid City, is doing, so: Wes Anderson does know that he's Wes Anderson. And this will sound more negative than I mean it, though I do mean it in a somewhat negative way, but I kind of wish nobody'd told him; for Asteroid City is his admission that he knows, and that maybe being Wes Anderson bothers him, too.
Or at least that's what I managed to take from it; Asteroid City is the kind of movie I'd very much like to see again, for it's also one that requires, far more than usual for Anderson—whose films are ordinarily as easy to watch as they are fussily-made—a serious amount of work on its behalf. This time, it's actually complicated, not merely ornate. So: Anderson's made nested, iterative narratives his "thing" for over ten years now. I believe he introduced this in a serious way with Bob Balaban's decades-after-the-fact narrator in Moonrise Kingdom, and as soon as Grand Budapest this tendency blossomed into deliberate overelaboration, with that film's "top" narrative level in particular being quite earnestly proud of itself for being, to a certain sensibility, completely pointless. The French Dispatch was looser, and while it's probably every bit as overelaborate as Grand Budapest, if you objectively mapped its structure out, it doesn't feel that way in the watching, maybe because it has so many stories-within-stories placed side-by-side you don't bother with anything but going with the flow.
Asteroid City doesn't initially look like it's taking Anderson's predilection for stories-within-stories beyond the infinite, and, indeed, looks like it's going "back to basics" as far as Anderson might do anything "basic": thus, in this simplified view of things, are there just the two narrative levels of Asteroid City, starting with the "top," a starkly-lit television broadcast of late-50s vintage (going out on "WXYZ," ain't that cute?), which via its host (Bryan Cranston) purports to be either a televised production of the hit Broadway play, Asteroid City, or a sort of arts & culture exploration of its genesis under its writer (Edward Norton) and its director (Adrien Brody).
For our purposes as an audience and Anderson's purposes as a filmmaker, it's more of the latter, that is, the exploration of the fictional Asteroid City "phenomenon"; hence these black-and-white Academy ratio vignettes that sneak around the act breaks of Asteroid City are more-or-less exclusively devoted to giving us time with its creators and its lead actor (Jason Schwartzman), only ever providing a grounding context (and only "sort of") for the bulk of the film, which is not, formally-speaking, a televised broadcast, nor a filmed stageplay, and does not honestly attempt to be "stageplay-like" in any particular sense beyond "it is a Wes Anderson movie and artifice is king, so it always looks like a stageplay but of course it looks even more like a pop-up book." In anamorphic widescreen and color, it's more like the unacknowledged film adaptation of the play, and that play concerns a young inventors' convention held out in the tiny desert crossroads town of Asteroid City, so-named because of the nearby crater and the remnant meteorite that still sits within it, which is interrupted by an alien encounter. In the aftermath, the town is quarantined by the authorities (principally Jeffrey Wright's Gen. Grif Gibson), much to the chagrin of war photographer Augie Steenbeck (also Jason Schwartzman), who may or may not find certain cosmic questions posed by this celestial visitation, and who is presently wrestling with the problem of not having told his teen inventor son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) or his triplicated hecate of young daughters that their mother died fully three weeks earlier.
This dramatic conflict, which brings in maternal grandfather Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) and also involves the mother of another inventor, starlet Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), is all handled fairly matter-of-factly, one might say with "deadpan humor," such as is Anderson's typical wont; it is not really what the movie's about, or if it is (and there's an argument it still could be, or that there are still elements in the meta-interplay between its two narratives that indicate Anderson and Roman Coppola's story at least started out that way), it is not about it that much. For this, I feel to a degree genuinely put-upon looking up the character names and listing their actors, or even doing a "plot summary" in the first place—I haven't come anywhere close to reciting the full cast list, incidentally, which is such a pile-up that the opening credits sequence of Asteroid City, in its minorest fit of Andersonian self-awareness, is obliged to playfully race through their names at such a rapid clip that it's completely unreadable, despite the fact that this credits sequence (done over the arrival in Asteroid City of a gorgeous collection of variably-scaled miniature trains edited to resemble one single miniature train) is still kind of long.
Those actors are flawlessly arrayed within the nested Asteroid City construct, let's get that out there; they just don't matter as much this time. Which is not to say the "top" level of actors, writers, directors, directors' ex-wives (Hong Chau), etc., matter all that much, either; the closest they come to mattering as their own characters, or as a way to draw out the themes of the play they're putting on, is when we meet an actor (Margot Robbie) whose character was cut from the production, and this is somehow more of a way for the characters in the production to continue not dealing with what she represents, loudly pointing at the silence that's the only possible answer to any of those cosmic questions I mentioned above, such, as noted, that Augie Steenback may or may not be grappling with. And this is affecting but in a way that the movie has only very hypothetically actually earned for itself.
Forgive me if I put off any positive thesis a while longer, but until now Anderson's nested narratives have—how to describe this—not been the most essential aspects of his work. They're somewhat necessary but not sufficient: Moonrise Kingdom "works" without one, Grand Budapest or The French Dispatch would "work" without so many. There's an argument that the foremost reason he likes them is they simply let him jack off with different kinds of formalism—aspect ratios, black-and-white and color—and while I wouldn't agree with that argument, Asteroid City demonstrates there's some kernel of truth to it. The TV stuff looks nice (and it's probably worth mentioning that it increasingly, subtly, and then all at once disentangles itself from the strictures of that conceit), but the TV stuff is plainly not the interesting thing here. That's Robert Yeoman's widescreen color photography of the "play," and Goddamn, whether or not I'm entirely on board with what Asteroid City is doing as a narrative it is incredibly hard not to hail it as Anderson's prettiest film. The line Anderson wants you to remember from Asteroid City, as the summation of its purpose, is "you can't wake up if you don't fall asleep"—you can tell because it's repeated twenty times in a row, and we'll get to that—but to my mind the archly-written, archly-delivered stage direction that Norton's writer wrote for his play, which I've used as the title of this review, is a lot more useful as a summation of the movie's effect.
For that light is absurdly beautiful, accomplished mainly by way of old school manipulation of the location's natural light (that is, the sunlight of a Spanish desert shot from under a gauzy off-camera sheet). In tandem with production designer Adam Stockhausen, Yeoman's created a film full of glowing colors (and with a heaping helping of semi-practical orange-and-teal) that doesn't feel like it's insisting upon a particular temperature, and is, to wit, clean in its stark complexion; it's kind of miraculous, and that's not even the most miraculous part of it, which is how that light and Yeoman's lenses are used to create flat, graphic blocks of unified space that gives this live-action film the textures of contemporary commercial art, like a moving magazine illustration. (I have never in my life felt a burning need to honor a focus puller—and part of that is that it's 2023, and the focus puller/first assistant camera's job on most movies today appears to be standing around with a thumb up their ass—but Vincent Scotet has covered himself in legitimate glory. I'm frankly floored, and not enough of a technician to understand how this much depth of field was accomplished.)
Well, the adjective "painterly" gets overused for cinematography but this is as painterly as the artform gets, as painterly as any motion picture since The Death of Louis XIV, which, of course, was painterly as fuck, and this might be even more; if it's not engaged in the same conversation between still image and moving image, and hence not as intellectual about it, the actual photographic reproduction might really be more aesthetically faithful to its influences, including those influences' mechanical reproduction on mid-century paper (the touchstone is Norman Rockwell, but mostly in that he's representative of a movement, not in any noticeably specific sense). There's a lot going into this—besides the photography, for instance, there's Stockhausen's "American Southwest" sets that are big pieces of foam that obviously aren't more than about a hundred feet away, and just the usual Andersonian attention to the tweest detail—but it's wonderful, and this time somewhat divorced from either irony or nostalgia, which does dovetail with Anderson's goals.
This is a movie that tells you it's about imagination for its own sake. There are gestures made so much for their own sake here they'll melt your heart: the insistence of further subdividing a flat plane with even more flat planes (I'm thinking particularly of a shot/reverse-shot conversation with Schwartzman and Johansson) that renders the film a virtual exercise in abstraction; a cross-hatched roof that creates a shadow pattern on all the actors and their colorful clothing that feels like it's not just the primary but the entire reason that this scene happens at all. It is not, even so, wholly devoid of irony: the "play" opens and closes with a nearby a-bomb test, which is, sure, "a joke about the 1950s," but, considering how much Asteroid City and its inhabitants, both permanent and temporary, resemble the environs and inhabitants of a fake nuclear test town, it's also a heavy indicator of exactly how Anderson is relating to his dollhouse this time.
So, yeah, he (metaphorically) blows it up. The irony we get isn't historic, then, but deeply, even upsettingly, personal; and while there's no such thing as an "impersonal" Anderson film, this is the one that's explicitly about him. I'm finally ready to state any kind of thesis, and it's that as much as Anderon's pretended not to, he actually has been listening when you accused him of being lost in aesthetic and narrative concerns that only he gives a shit about, and Asteroid City is him wondering if, maybe, you're right. He heard you call his style self-parodying; so he has responded with a film that says, "no, this is what it looks like when I self-parody." Right back to that nested narrative structure: I said I didn't agree that they were just for goofing around with style, because what they're for is, for lack of a better term, vibes—to create a sense of aching nostalgic distance between Anderson's invented neverwhens and the viewer, to reinforce that they're fantasies forever out of reach, and communicate an abiding sadness that it's only reality that's real. But Asteroid City says, haltingly, "but that's not true." For all that Anderson is "arthouse" by a loose definition of that term, this is his first actual art film, and I might respect that more than I like it, because that's all it has to say.
The story necessarily becomes more and more about storytelling in the Andersonian mode, rather than a story in the Andersonian mode. The play, Asteroid City, is a collection of Anderson tropes lashed together and forced into a pseudo-satire that I assume will play a little better on a rewatch than at first blush. Accordingly, the dialogue is now even more arch; the performances even more mannered; the themes (of the "play") even more openly repetitive with stuff he's done before. It's striking and slightly alienating how completely all of Asteroid City's characters, up to and including the protagonists, still feel like the side characters who texture the stories in Anderson's other movies, except without as much capacity to enrich the emotional core of this story because the emotional core is now on the outside of the story. This is despite a nominal lead, with nominally important feelings, in Augie; and Schwartzman, whose collaboration with Anderson goes all the way back to Rushmore when Anderson was still an almost-normal guy, is pretty telling casting if the goal is in fact to question the value of Anderson's body of work. (As for Augie's arc itself, now Max Fischer is dealing with the death of his children's mom.) Augie's kid and Midge's kid Dinah (Grace Edwards) get a miniature Moonrise Kingdom, sans drama. And I'm still implying there's a focus on these characters; but I'm not sure I would say they get noticeably more screentime than the tertiary characters. Yet I'm not sure I'd call it an "ensemble piece," either, rather than a collection of sketches on the subject of quarantine in a town under the threat (or promise) of alien incursion.
I have, I'm sure, made it sound so desperately unfun, and I regret that. There is much to be entertained by here, after all: it's not "a good story," but it's often still deadpan funny as hell; the alien itself is very amusing (it's exactly what you should expect and somehow still a surprise); and at times it's investing in spite of itself because of how inhumanly stiff Schwartzman and Ryan are in their "grief drama." (Hanks is good casting: he's trying but can't play completely stiff.) But there's something off about how much more vitally important to the movie it is that, e.g., Cranston accidentally walks into the "play." At least these meta exertions are interesting—the alien's metaphor for dreaming of unknowabilities, the encounter with the actress who suggests that the excision of a conventional climax from the play is as much to make her an offscreen ("offstaged") muse, and especially the intentionally-cringe beatnik nonsense of the "fall asleep" chant, which Anderson may mean more sincerely than anything else.
But this is as fans-only a film as I think it's possible for Wes Anderson to make, and, I know, that's the kind of claim you may need to sit down for several minutes with a stiff drink to process. If it were anybody else, would it suck? It's only my own affection for this filmmaker that ever permits it to be any kind of emotional experience; and that's disturbing, since for all their cinematic finery, Anderson's films have always been emotional experiences above all. The only time Asteroid City managed to conjure any keen feeling in me is when the framing narrative becomes openly baffled by itself, whereupon the only advice the framing narrative can tell itself is to "just keep telling the story." Which means that the only keen feeling this story ever got out of me was on behalf of its creator, lost in his own diorama. It's scary and optimistic all at once, watching a filmmaker running on fumes and openly wondering if he still has it, which I have absolute faith that he does. So this kind of open confession and open dissection of his own process, done so aesthetically brilliantly, surely must be respected, and, yes, to a degree, loved. I suspect it'll grow on me. But right this second, I can't help but be a little disappointed that the big idea Wes Anderson came up with was "Wes Anderson is out of ideas."