Thursday, June 22, 2023

Film Review: “Asteroid City” Is Wes Anderson’s Most Wes Anderson Film That Feels Less of An Opus Than a Minor, Enjoyable Diversion

Asteroid City (c) Focus Features

Film: “Asteroid City” 
In Cinemas 

Premise: We are in the titular Asteroid City, a small town with a population of 87, hosting a Junior Stargazer convention in 1955, chosen (and named) because an asteroid hit it and created a crater many centuries ago. Among the young scientists vying for the big cash prize is Woodrow Steenbeck (Jones Hall), accompanied by his father Augie (Jason Schwartzman), his three younger sisters and his mother’s father (Tom Hanks). Another is Dinah (Grace Edwards), whose mother Midge (Scarlett Johansson) is a famous actress. A sort of flirtation begins between the two partnerless parents and their hormonal offspring, which plays out at the convention. During a nighttime observation of a planetary alignment, a UFO arrives, and the whole town, along with the conventioneers, is quarantined by the US Government. This story, we’re told, is actually a play (hence the title of the movie is in quotes), and the subject of a TV show narrated by a host (Bryan Cranston), about the historical significance of the play, its playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and its historical first production, directed by Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). 

Asteroid City (c) Focus Features

My Take: What Jungian shared experience happened during the pandemic that both Wes Anderson and Jordan Peele made films about close encounters of the third kind in the desert? And both visionary directors provided their own personal style to their projects: Peele made Nope a horror movie and Anderson made “Asteroid City” into whatever you interpret Anderson movies to be. Whimsical and funny? Sure. Twee but inventive? Occasionally. Aggravatingly precious? Well… I do consider myself an Anderson acolyte and while I enjoyed “Asteroid City,” there were moments even I felt were too indulgent for a director known and celebrated for excess. Those who rebelled against the anthology style of “The French Dispatch” will be happy to see one story, although splintered among many, many character narratives. What I found somewhat impenetrable was Anderson’s favored use of a framing device to explain why we were being told the story of the movie, but it seems more like an excuse to have a narrator. I appreciated the documentary approach and the sort of a fulfillment of Charlie Kaufman’s conceit in Synecdoche, New York to have a theater so big it looked like a movie set. But whenever Anderson returned to the TV show framing device, I felt jolted out of the more intriguing main story and couldn’t wait until Anderson turned the proverbial channel back to it. Even with what I believe to be the first gay male kiss in an Anderson film (unsubstantiated), which I appreciated, it doesn’t make up for the whole sleep symposium section, as oblique as it is unfunny. 

Asteroid City (c) Focus Feature

The main story, with its vibrant pastel colors and dollhouse sets, is a joy, even if a lot of it reminded me of themes already explored in Moonrise Kingdom.  His clockwork, camera movement blocking of establishing shot to deadpan actor delivering dialogue to some kind of nonsensical imagery still gives me the giggles. The actors, especially the ones who are veterans of Anderson’s film, fall somewhere on the spectrum of spot-on Anderson deadpan delivery (with Tilda Swinton as scientist being perfection) to trying a little too hard (with Bryan Cranston being left rudderless as our narrator). As for the actors new to Anderson’s movies, I found Tom Hanks as a game participant, giving us some rare emotional moments in a film that actively avoids sentiments of any kind. I know after a couple of more viewings, I will relax into this Anderson milieu as I do most of his films. I just wish I didn’t have to. 

Asteroid City (c) Focus Features

VIP: Robert D. Yeoman. It’s unbelievable that this veteran cinematographer who has worked on most of Wes Anderson’s films since Bottle Rocket has only been nominated for one Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Yeoman is adept at both the colorful stylish section of the film as well as the gorgeous black and white use of shading and shadows. Even with Anderson’s penchant for changing aspect ratios starting to feel a bit arbitrary, Yeoman excels in both, filling the widescreen screen with the creative instinct of a painter as well as his artistic mastery with the Academy ratio. Making Anderson’s vision into a reality is Yeoman’s true gift, and for “Asteroid City,” Yeoman’s work is perfection.

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