Monday, June 26, 2023

It's well worth taking a trip to Asteroid City

If you're not already hooked on Wes Anderson, I can't imagine Asteroid City will suddenly convert you into a believer. That's not a comment on the film's quality, but merely a reflection of its style. Asteroid City is a metatextual work with deeply intricate storytelling approach that also ramps up both the melancholy and dry humor of Anderson's preceding works to eleven. It's bound to leave some baffled, especially those who've never been able to get on this filmmaker's wavelength. That's not me, though. I'm the person who owes Fantastic Mr. Fox a great deal of debt as one of the movies that got me so enamored with cinema. As somebody who always clicked with this director's specific style, Asteroid City was like an all-you-can-eat cinematic buffet so scrumptious that it left me licking my plate.

Asteroid City begins by explaining how Asteroid City is the name of a fictional play being performed in 1956. Scenes set firmly in the "real world" are framed in black-and-white and the Academy aspect ratio. Sequences meant to be embellishments of the "performance" are rendered in expansive widescreen, a vivid color palette, and very real-looking locales (the characters are not confined to a limited stage). Within the play, a bevy of colorful characters converges on the mostly empty destination of Asteroid City for a science fair, among them being grieving dad Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Here, the deepest questions related to the cosmos begin to factor into the lives of these lonely souls, though weighty queries related to the possibility of alien life are nothing compared to just trying to connect with other human beings.

The Atomic Age of the 1950s casts an enormous shadow on Asteroid City and informs much of its dark humor. The specter of death lingers over many of these characters, which makes it extra amusing when characters like a motel manager (Steve Carell) become enamored with trivial matters like what juice patrons would prefer when they wake up in the morning. Human beings really are good at getting caught up in superficial details even when world-altering events are happening around them. Anderson's always shown a gift for dark comedy dating back to this directorial debut Bottle Rocket. It's no shock then that, decades into his filmmaker career, he's refined that talent to a tee within the best jokes in Asteroid City. 

Anderson's writing also makes fascinating use of parallel storylines that oscillate between the world within the Asteroid City play and "reality." The latter area is often defined by an intentionally awkward sparseness that accentuates the subdued imperfections of these artistic souls. A moment between director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) and recent ex-wife Polly (Hong Chau) is a perfect example of this. The duo doesn't get into a screaming match to reflect their current relationship status. It's as if the two have become so familiar with the idea of no longer being lovers that there's no point in great displays of animosity. Combining this reminder of love lost with narration about Green's work ethic and the sparseness of Asteroid City's "reality" paints a quietly tragic portrait of this director. 

Trying to juggle all this storytelling material and comprehend the relationship between fiction and non-fiction while Asteroid City sometimes made my brain hurt, but that's a testament to just how much exciting material Anderson's filmmaking is offering up to viewers. Plus, there are plenty of surface-level pleasures here to ensure that you don't need to write up a doctoral thesis to enjoy the proceedings. Who isn't going to get a kick out of Jeffrey Wright's bombastic and comically overwrought speech kicking off a youth-oriented science fair or an inexplicable honkey-tonk tune about aliens? There's plenty of pathos here, but also tons of amusing gags and sequences to keep you glued to the screen.

Asteroid City also delivers a treasure trove of finely-tuned performances that leave an impact even if they're only on-screen for a short period of time. Tom Hanks, in his first-ever Wes Anderson performance, is especially fun as a grouchy grandfather. It's neat that he's treated as just one member of a massive ensemble rather than having the story reorient itself entirely around giving America's Dad as much screentime as possible. Having Hanks around in this manner offers up plenty of screentime for newer faces like Maya Hawke, Jake Ryan, and Grace Edwards to shine as some of the younger characters. Wes Anderson veterans like Schwartzman, Swinton, and Brody all deliver superb work while Bryan Cranston is a riot as the film's narrator. That wonderful voice of his is something you love to listen to for long periods of time while the actor's lengthy experience with comedy means he nails his character's one big humorous moment.

On top of providing so many great performances and flashes of dark comedy, Asteroid City is just beautiful to look at thanks to Robert Yeoman's cinematography. The colorized sequences set in the domain of Asteroid City are some of the most immediately striking, especially with the recurring use of light blue in the sets and costumes. However, the monochromatic "reality" scenes provide some of the most memorable imagery of Asteroid City for my money. Especially unforgettable is an extended wide shot in one of the movie's final scenes that just exudes so much potent wistfulness thanks to the use of black-and-white coloring. Wherever Asteroid City goes, it exudes so much creativity and wit. It's a microcosm of the complicated tones, beautiful images, and unforgettable performances that make Wes Anderson movies such unique cinematic delights.

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