'Asteroid City' review: Wes Anderson’s latest is a meteoric disappointment
Courtesy of Focus Features
From the diorama production design, immaculate practical effects, and a cache of recognizable A-listers, it will surprise no one to learn all of Wes Anderson’s trademarks are alive and well in his latest, “Asteroid City.” Ever since his early works in “Bottle Rocket,” “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Anderson has become a genre unto himself, and most can ascertain whether or not his daft sense of humor and camera tricks are for them. Speaking for myself, I’m usually enamored with the director’s efforts and am always impressed at what he’s able to squeeze into his frames. Wherever you look, there’s always something to admire. So, it’s disappointing, and somewhat shocking, “Asteroid City,” a story where Anderson’s explores themes of grief through performance art, struggled to connect with me on a deeper level. It seemed the director, at least on this project, had become too enamored with his own sense of direction, he forgot to think if audiences could find a way into the story. It plays like a mediocre episode of “Twilight Zone.”
In the early moments, it’s easy to get swept up in the dazzling imagery Anderson cooks up (in an age where CGI has become all too common, the “Isle of Dogs” filmmaker always makes sure his movies look gorgeous). The movie takes place in the vintage, desolate town of Asteroid City circa 1955 where it doesn’t take long to acclimate towards the inhabitants and business fronts that reside within its retro locale. There’s the one pump gas station, a highway exit that goes nowhere, the occasional cops and robbers chase through the streets, vending machines which sell plots of lands, and a mechanic (played by Matt Dillion) who hasn’t worked on many vehicles and can diagnose exactly two problems. Perhaps Asteroid City’s best-known amenity is that it’s home to a meteor that crashed landed decades ago, making it the prime spot for the annual Junior Stargazer convention.
The space cadet extravaganza has brought a slew of tourist to the area, including war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his four children, including brainiac son Woodrow (“Eighth Grade” standout Jack Ryan), of whom he hasn’t officially relied the news their mother has died despite him carrying her remains in a Tupperware container, much to the bemoan of his stern father-in-law Stanley Zak, played with a gruff by Tom Hanks who’s making his Anderson debut.
Though Augie probably has the most screen time, “Asteroid City” is an ensemble piece, a standard of most Anderson works. Which means folks like Scarlett Johansson, Jeffrey Wright, and Tilda Swinton get to explore quirky character performances playing a Marilyn Monroe-inspired actress who is always looking for her next scene and is the talk of the town; a scientist named Dr. Hickenlooper; and an oddball General tasked with keeping the town quarantined after unexplained, extra-terrestrial events transpire around the meteor site.
And yet, despite all these elements working in its favor, “Asteroid City” is too abstract for its own good. Solidified by an oddball framing device where Bryan Cranston, displaying his best Rod Sterling impersonation, tells us the lead characters are actually stage actors playing these roles in a New York City black box theater. What?! It’s a jarring way to begin the film and, unfortunately, never rebounds as it becomes a chore trying to gauge its themes under one convoluted roof. While Anderson exploring how storytelling can penetrate grief during unthinkable tragedies is certainly a touching and poetic metaphor, but the barrage of characters, including those played by Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Live Schreiber, Hope Davis, Steve Park, Maya Hawke, and Steve Carell, take away from that insightful journey. In the end, “Asteroid City” marks a rare blemish on the auteur’s otherwise decent cinematic track record.
ASTEROID CITY opens in wide release Friday, June 23rd