“Auteur” has grown into a bit of a dirty word in film circles of late. This idea says that the director is the “author” of a movie. While it’s a popular theory in certain academic circles, it stands in opposition to the truth that movie-making is also a collaborative medium. However, sometimes a director brings such mastery of their personal vision that they can only be recognized as an auteur. This is Wes Anderson. As a director, his creative vision is unmistakably his. There is no way to confuse a Wes Anderson movie with any other filmmaker. As Asteroid City hits theaters this week, will it emerge as yet another quirky, memeable Wes Anderson gem? Read on!
I’m not sure I could describe Asteroid City if I tried … but this isn’t a problem. The story follows a colorful cast of characters as a group of youthful geniuses descends upon a quiet desert town for a yearly celebration. At the same time, though, the plot also emerges as a complicated story within a story. There’s 1950s television, aliens, staging on a Broadway play — there’s a lot here. It’s dense and quirky, but it’s loads of fun.
The film features an all-star cast led by Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody and Steve Carell. Kids, this is only the tip of the casting iceberg. Wes Anderson directs Asteroid City from a script he co-wrote with Roman Coppola.
In every frame of Asteroid City, Wes Anderson captures candy-colored joy in just one hour and 50 minutes. While so many films of late drop audiences into murky artificial worlds, this isn’t Anderson’s style. It never has been. Anderson and company waste no time immersing audiences inside a stunning landscape reminiscent of classic Hollywood’s beautiful artificiality.
These backdrops capture a colorful sense of a fantastic reality in this atomic-era desert town. It feels oddly familiar, especially for those with a background in 1950s television. In fact, this movie could most certainly be shot in many ghost towns throughout Utah and Nevada. However, in crafting the set design in this vivid manner, Asteroid City grounds itself in a heightened sense of nostalgia.
This nostalgic artificiality is vital in bringing the 1950s “play within a TV show” arch to life. Throughout the film, there’s an uncanniness to this structure. It’s not supposed to feel like a comment on the 1950s. Instead, there’s a sense this is pulled straight from the period, much like what Jordan Peele executed with the 1990s in Nope‘s “Gordy’s Birthday” sequence. Instead of watching a movie in 2023, you’re pressing play on a rickety VHS tape of something your grandparents had in their basement.
Bryan Cranston plays a subtle but memorable role as a Rod Serling-like television host. His presence is finely tuned and impeccably studied. Without him, the nostalgia potentially falls flat. At the same time, though, he finds subtle ways to contribute and single-handedly sells one of my favorite moments in the film. You’ll know it when you see it.
It’s fascinating to watch this piece of art come together. Yes, kids. It is a piece of art. This weird and wonderful story gels behind a truly talented A-list cast packed with everyone who has ever wanted to work with Wes Anderson.
There isn’t a weak point in the bunch. Jason Schwartzman delights as the recently widowed Augie, as do Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johansson. Meanwhile, Edward Norton is having a blast as Conrad Earp, a playwright who bears more than a significant resemblance to Tennesse Williams. Tilda Swinton, Hong Chau, Adrien Brody and Matt Dillon absolutely dominate in small but memorable roles.
Meanwhile, one can’t write about this movie without recognizing triplets Willan, Gracie and Ella Faris. As Augie’s decidedly kooky and witchy daughters, the young sisters steal every scene in which they appear. In an industry that is often rough on child performers, these youngsters carry a number of humorous moments and amazingly hold their own opposite the likes of Tom Hanks. They’re incredibly fun to watch.
There’s an almost stilted nature to a number of the performances, which comes together in a surprising way. In the hands of another filmmaker, this is awkward and “Worst of the Year” territory. However, Anderson works with these actors to craft every beat. Each and every line of dialogue is thought through with a meticulous eye for timing and humor. While these actors are clearly “acting,” it plays an important part in continuing to craft the uncanny nostalgia in the piece. It’s flawless.
When all is said and done, Asteroid City is a Wes Anderson picture. In fact, many are calling it the most “Anderson-ey” of the Anderson pictures. The movie brings together a stacked cast to populate a colorful and delightful world. Much of the joy stems from watching these people unite in this universe. These characters speak for themselves.
It probably isn’t too hard to guess that Asteroid City is by far and away my favorite movie from 2023 thus far. While this year is (admittedly) young, the fantastical comedy is a true joy to watch. While its highly stylized and stilted nature certainly won’t work for everyone, this is a must-see for Anderson fans, those with a flair for all things nostalgic and everyone in between.
Asteroid City opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, June 23, 2023.
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