Asteroid City Review
Does Wes Anderson invoice based on the number of Hollywood names stuffed in his distended cast? Is Wes Anderson blinded by narcissism to the extent that all he cares about is having a foot long list of cast credits, held tenuously together by a pretentiously self-referential vanity project? I made a film about making a film about a play, so clever, wink wink…
These questions start popping up halfway through Asteroid City, maybe during the pivotal scene of a tall lanky extraterrestrial alighting briefly from a space craft to pick up a piece of meteoroid. Around this point in Asteroid City, the sensate viewer realises that this is rather a drawn out joke than an actual film with a storyline and that that the so-called play-within-a-film-within-a-film is a shallow excuse for a series of desert vignettes with Anderson’s fetish entourage of actors (Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe minus Bill Murray and Owen Wilson) plus some big name newcomers to the Andersonian universe (Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Margot Robbie et al.)
The play within a TV movie is being written by a playwright called Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). It revolves around a fictional 1950s desert hamlet somewhere between California-Nevada-Arizona, which consists of a gas station, an astronomy lab, a train line, a diner and a motel made up of a few bungalows run by a land developer played by Steve Carrell (a minor role originally intended for Bill Murray who pulled out due to COVID-19). On the occasion of awarding a junior astronomy competition, five quirky teenage geniuses accompanied by a parent each descend upon the desert town in order to receive their awards from a US Army general (Jeffrey Wright). Each parent-teen pair has its own wacky mannerisms, exaggerated in a typical Andersonian fashion, giving rise to a couple of pairings between recently widowed war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and famous actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), as well as their respective children Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and Dinah (Grace Edwards).
Simultaneously, the space race is taking place in the background, and the play is being staged by a director called Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). In a ridiculously pointless scene whose sole purpose seems to be as a pretext of having Brody, Norton and Defoe on screen together (presumably as a means to feed star-struck Anderson’s narcissism), Conrad Earp the playwright asks acting coach Defoe’s class for help scripting a sleeping scene, which is totally unrelated to any of the fictious play’s plot. While Defoe’s part is of zero narrative significance other than having him in there, Brody’s character is supposedly more fleshed out and contradictory, but just as utterly pointless. This underutilization of Brody’s talent is one of many casting sins. Scarlett Johansson is indifferent as a jaded actress playing an actress, and the character’s chronic bad mood and weariness of unknown origin amply reflect the little patience a self-respecting viewer has for this squandering of acting talent.
Of course, Anderson’s core strength is the creation of quirky, offbeat universes and he does manage to do this in the desert town with spare, stylised props, reflecting the theatrical nature of the enterprise. The mise en scene is prettily composed, featuring a charming cardboard artificiality and a 1950s pastel aesthetic. However, the director then tries to be too clever by half by interspersing the desert episodes with the black-and-white meta-narrative of the playwright and his cloying announcing of the play’s acts and scenes. This gimmick is possible catchy the first time around, after which it is just irritating. Furthermore, the meta-level story has no narrative to speak of, other than that the play is being written then staged. But hey, Anderson needed an in for his pals Norton and Brody and this is the best he could conceive.
The astronomical sequences in Asteroid City maybe could have worked on their own as a conventional comedy, had the author decided against the gimmicky dramaturgical interludes. There are already more than enough characters in that portion of the story and some of them are enjoyably quirky (the three 5-year old Steenbeck witches are outrageously cute). Set design is maybe Anderson’s chief talent, along with deadpan one-liners and dorky characters. It is a pity that the author’s greed for names overpowered his strengths and resulted in the waste of much potential, for the sheer number of ensemble cast means none of them is afforded sufficient narrative time or character depth. Towards the end the astronomical city storyline loses its cohesion as well and disintegrates into sci-fi absurdity. By that point, the extraterrestrial returning a piece of meteoroid is egregiously nonsensical and offensive to the audience’s intelligence.