Movie Reviews“I Don’t Understand the Play” — Josh Reviews Asteroid City

“I Don’t Understand the Play” — Josh Reviews Asteroid City

Asteroid City is the latest wonderful film from Wes Anderson.  (Mr. Anderson wrote and directed the film; the story is credited to Mr. Anderson and Roman Coppola.)  The film is set in a stylized version of the 1950’s, in a little town in the middle of nowhere called Asteroid City because of the large crater that is the town’s main feature.  Photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his kids wind up in this sleepy town because their car broke down.  Augie is bringing the kids to stay with their maternal grandfather (Tom Hanks); he hasn’t found the heart to tell them yet that their mother, his wife, has recently passed away.  Everyone else who descends upon Asteroid City around the same time as Augie and his kids arrive because of the “Junior Stargazer” convention, in which several smart kids will receive awards.  There’s a lot of drama simmering just below the surface of the various adults and kids — pain and longing and sadness — and when an alien arrives at the town, well, things get a little shaken up.

I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson’s.  The Royal Tenenbaums made me a fan for life, and I think his recent films have just been getting better and better and better.  (I’ll argue that Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and The French Dispatch are each masterpieces.)  I’m also an enormous sci-fi fan, so I had a feeling the film’s retro-futuristic setting would appeal to me, and in that I was 100% correct.

The production design in Wes Anderson’s films is always exquisite, a beautifully detailed and heightened creation of a very specific time and place.  The look of the town of Asteroid City in this film hit all of my joy buttons.  I ate up every detail, repeatedly freeze-framing the film as I was watching it so I could soak up the look of the setting.  It’s like a beautiful painted pulp paperback cover brought to life.  It’s like Los Alamos from Oppenheimer crossed with a Loony Tunes cartoon.  Absolutely magnificent.

The cast, as is always the case in a Wes Anderson film, is incredible.  The film is jammed-full of tremendous performers, each of whom make the very most of their every second on-screen.  Let’s start with Jason Schwartzman and Scarlet Johansson.  Mr. Schwartzman was the lead in Rushmore, the 1998 film that made Wes Anderson’s name.  It’s wonderful seeing Mr. Schwartzman back at the center of another film by Mr. Anderson.  He brings a hangdog sadness to the recently-widowed Augie, but also a fast-talking pluckiness that I found very endearing.  Mr. Schwartzman shows us Augie’s pain and bleakness that he’s having trouble keeping buried; he also demonstrates impeccable comedic timing.  (His delivery of Augie’s response when Midge, played by Scarlett Johansson, asks him if he wants to see her perform a nude scene is the funniest moment in a very funny film.)  Speaking of Ms. Johansson, she’s spectacular as Midge, the successful but lonely and somewhat self-centered actress who is only in town because her daughter Dinah is up for a Junior Stargazer award.  Ms. Johansson is so funny, delivering Mr. Anderson’s dialogue at a rapid clip.  Like Mr. Schwartzman, she brings a deep well of sadness to her character.  I really loved the relationship that unfolded between these two, over the course of the film!

It was an unexpected surprise to see the great Tom Hanks join Mr. Anderson’s ensemble; he’s wonderful as Augie’s wealthy and gruff father-in-law.  Tilda Swinton is very funny as the intelligent but somewhat loopy Dr. Hickenlooper, the lead scientist in Asteroid City, while Jeffrey Wright brings a similar mix to General Gibson, the head military man on the scene.  (Mr. Wright’s brilliantly funny performance of General Gibson’s weird speech/one-act play is amazing.)  Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, and Stephen Parks are each wonderful as three other bizarre and idiosyncratic Junior Stargazer parents.  Steve Carell is a hoot as the deadpan local hotel manager.  Rupert Friend is delightfully weird as Montana (who I guess is some sort of singing cowboy?), while Maya Hawke (Robin on Stranger Things) is delightful as the put-upon schoolteacher with whom Montana is somewhat smitten.  Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, and Adrien Brody play characters in the framing device that surrounds the film’s main story.  Matt Dillon, Tony Revolori, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Jeff Goldblum, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban, and Rita Wilson are each a lot of fun in their small supporting roles.

Then there are the fantastic kids.  I loved every one of these performances.  Jake Ryan is soulful and heartfelt as Woodrow, Augie’s oldest child, and Grace Edwards brings depth and soulfulness to her work as Dinah, Midge’s daughter.  I loved the sweet relationship that developed between these two.  Ethan Josh Lee is great as Ricky, who doesn’t trust the adults around him; also great is Aristou Meehan as Clifford, who is unendingly pushing others to dare him to misbehave.  Sophia Lillis (who was so great as Beverly Marsh in the two It films) is also enjoyable to see as Shelly, the last of the Junior Stargazer kids, though I didn’t feel we got to know her character as well as we did the other kids.  I also adored all three of Woodrow’s younger sisters, as well as all ten of the kids whose field-trip to Asteroid City has gotten unexpectedly extended.  (How bizarre and wonderful is the kid who sings a cowboy dancing number about the alien??)

How about that cast, right???  (But wait: where’s Bill Murray??  Mr. Murray has appeared in every one of Mr. Anderson’s films ever since Rushmore!  Apparently, Mr. Murray got Covid and so was unexpectedly unable to play his intended part — he was going to be the hotel manager, the role that wound up being played by Steve Carell.  But he, Jason Schwartzman, and Wes Anderson decided to film a short film/promotional piece as a way to keep Mr. Murray as a part of this film somehow — click here to watch it!  Warning: it will make a lot more sense after you actually see the movie!)

Many of Wes Anderson’s films have a story-within-a-story structure.  (This was most notable in The Grand Budapest Hotel, which actually has four levels of its story.)  Asteroid City’s 1950’s setting is intriguingly set-up with not one but two framing devices.  We see a black-and-white TV special, hosted by Bryan Cranston’s character, that tells the story of playwright Conrad Earp, played by Edward Norton.  Mr. Earp is the author of the play Asteroid City, and we check-in with Mr. Earp, and the cast and crew of the play, as he’s writing and casting the play, and again later as the play is being performed.  The brightly-colored film that we’re watching, telling the story of the events at Asteroid City, is, as framed by the film, a depiction of Mr. Earp’s play.  As was the case in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mr. Anderson uses both color and aspect ratio to differentiate the different layers in the story structure.  The TV documentary, and the Conrad Earp play, are both presented in black and white in a 4:3 square-shaped aspect ratio.  The Asteroid City portions of the story are presented in a 2.39:1 widescreen format, and brought to life with eye-popping color.  This is a very cool technique.  I suspect many viewers might not take much notice of the aspect ratio changes, but it’s a wonderful way to distinguish these different laters of the story.

I will comment that this was the only Wes Anderson film in which I found these story-within-a-story layers somewhat distracting.  I think it’s because I was enjoying the main Asteroid City portions of the story so much, that I resented any cut-aways from those characters.  I’d have loved to have had more time with each and every one of those characters!!

On the other hand, as always, I think these layers of story-telling bring fascinating complexity to the tale that Mr. Anderson has crafted.  Ever since Rushmore, Mr. Anderson has clearly had an interest in combining aspects of theater into his movie-making.  It’s fascinating to be reminded, throughout the film, of the artificiality of the story we’re watching.  Some of that is inherent in the production design, whose very stylishness reminds us that we’re looking at sets, and not an actual town from the 1950’s.  But Mr. Anderson makes that subtext text in the film’s framing sequences.  It’s fascinating to watch scenes in which playwright Conrad Earp struggles to craft the very story we’re watching, just as it’s fascinating to watch actor Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman) audition to play the role of Augie Steenbeck that we’ve already been watching him play in the film.  It’s Jones Hall himself who, towards the end of the film, frustrating exclaims “I don’t understand the play!”  I suspect audience-members watching many of Wes Anderson’s films, including this one, might have shared that frustration.  But is that not the point?  Neither Augie, nor Midge, nor any other character in this film, receive any sort of blinding revelation that helps explain the meaning of their lives, or give reason for what they’re feeling and why.  Not even an actual alien encounter seems to offer that clarity, or change their lives in any demonstrable way!  I think that’s the point.  As ever, Mr. Anderson has created a film stuffed with characters who are enjoyably entertaining and weird, and yet who seem to possess the same human frailties and sadness that we all do in “real life”.

I loved this film, and I can’t wait to see it again.

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