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Asteroid City

Max Fischer, the arrogant and beleaguered co-protagonist of director Wes Anderson’s 1998 second feature, the classic and still-beloved “Rushmore,” had a lot of boasts in his repertoire, one being “I wrote a hit play.” Both an academic disaster and a relentless “can-do” guy, Fischer was performing an adolescence that would spare him having to confront its difficult parts, one of them being the emotional privation of losing his mother. 

I don’t need to tell you that Wes Anderson’s movies are highly stylized, nor do I need to tell you that many critics of his work have complained that his stylization works at the expense of emotional credibility and that “Rushmore,” which was released three decades ago, represents his most successful balancing act of visual design and genuine poignance. It’s a matter of taste. I’ve never been alienated by the lively neatness of Anderson’s frames. And as far as I’m concerned, “Asteroid City,” his latest collaboration with cinematographer Robert Yeoman, may be the most incandescently beautiful of all their movies so far. Additionally, its emotional impact is substantial. Imagine a gorgeous butterfly landing on your heart and then squeezing on that heart with sharp pincers you never knew it had. 

One of the key figures of “Asteroid City” is a fictional playwright named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). He has written, we learn, a hit play, more than one, in fact. 

This film opens in lustrous black-and-white and square Academy ratio, taking the form of a TV documentary, circa 1955, in the United States of America. Before screening the film, my wife and I talked about what I might experience, and reflecting on the last few Anderson movies, we asked, “Voice-over or no voice-over?” to which the answer turned out to be “Yes, and no.” The faux documentary is narrated by a nattily suited Bryan Cranston, who tells the story of the theatrical “Asteroid City,” a Carter Earp work, which is presented here by Anderson and company in gorgeous color and widescreen and cinematic brio.

If this sounds hard to follow—already!—well, it’s not. Anderson’s new movie is the most ingeniously conceived and seamlessly executed of his anthology/nesting multi-narratives. Earp’s play is set at a remote Western meteor crash site hosting a sort of Space Camp. The place is, as the settings for all of Anderson’s movies have tended to be, beautiful geographically/geologically (the orange of the desert and the cloudless blue sky create the visual equivalent of eating a Creamsicle on a sunny day) as well as in terms of building layout and design. None of the details, from the copy on the diner front to the displays of the vending machines, are extraneous. 

The Space Camp this small not-quite-town is hosting is a gathering of several scholastically gifted teens whose futuristic inventions—one of them literally a disintegration ray—are going to be stolen by the U.S. government (here presenting its most benign face via Jeffrey Wright’s General Gibson). The brilliant kids all bring their own drama. Woodrow (Jake Ryan) is the oldest son of war photographer Augie Steenback (Jason Schwartzman), who, as a competition for a scholarship begins, hasn’t yet told the teen, or his three young daughters, that their mother is three weeks dead. Woodrow, nicknamed “Brainiac” by his beloved mom, finds an immediate and, of course, initially awkward affinity with fellow “Junior Stargazer” Dinah (Grace Edwards), the daughter of Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a movie star whose dedication to the craft is matched by her free-floating melancholy. Other Stargazers have different issues—Ricky Cho (Ethan Josh Lee), a healthy skepticism of authority; Clifford Kellogg (Aristou Meehan), a compulsion to challenge adults to dare him to pull ill-advised stunts. The ease with which Anderson packs characters and their odd traits into a never-flagging narrative (the movie keeps fizzing and buzzing throughout its 105-minute running time) is remarkable. 

The human drama of the Asteroid City portion of the film, which finds Augie, his father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks), and the Steenback children, among others, negotiating with awful grief, is interrupted by not one but two visitations by an alien spacecraft. The new knowledge of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe solves nobody’s problems—it just obliges them to stay in the desert for at least another week. Looking out their cabin windows at each other, Augie and Midge compare notes, with Midge concluding, “We’re just two catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depths of our pain because ... we don’t want to.” 

Johansson is utterly beguiling in a half-enigmatic, half-quietly-blunt mode, while Schwartzman’s performance is revelatory. The actor—who played Max Fischer and has participated in nearly all of Anderson’s films since—shows a new maturity here, gravitas practically, playing a helpless man rather than a stunted adolescent. The nature of his role—in addition to playing Augie, he plays the actor playing Augie, an actor-playwright Earp is initially reluctant to cast—allows him to forge two discrete romantic affiliations (one a maybe, one a definitely), which makes his performance doubly tricky to execute, and doubly pleasurable to watch. 

All of the film’s action—and there’s so much of it, and all of it revels in the joy of creation, of performance, of human invention that seeks a cosmic splendor—eventually concentrates on the banal and yet all-consuming question, “What is the meaning of life?” Of course, the movie's characters don't always put the inquiry so plainly. Here it takes the form of the statement, articulated like a plea: “I don’t understand the play.” Followed by the heartbreaking query, “Am I doing it right?” 

“Asteroid City” portrays a gorgeous gallery of people in various guises, performing art and performing life, all trying to do it right. It’s a sui generis contraption that nevertheless has its heart in the modern classics—I felt echoes of “Our Town” and “Citizen Kane” and such throughout. But most clearly, by the end, I heard the voice of a different master. Recommending the film to an old friend, I told him that “Asteroid City” was comparable to another great cinematic celebration/interrogation of performance as life, life as performance: Jean Renoir’s “The Golden Coach.” Yeah, it’s that good.

Now playing in select theaters and available nationwide on June 23rd. 

Glenn Kenny

Glenn Kenny was the chief film critic of Premiere magazine for almost half of its existence. He has written for a host of other publications and resides in Brooklyn. Read his answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here.

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Film Credits

Asteroid City movie poster

Asteroid City (2023)

Rated PG-13 for brief graphic nudity, smoking and some suggestive material.

105 minutes

Cast

Jason Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck / Jones Hall

Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell / Mercedes Ford

Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak

Jake Ryan as Woodrow Steenbeck

Jeffrey Wright as General Grif Gibson

Tilda Swinton as Dr. Hickenlooper

Bryan Cranston as The Host

Willem Dafoe as Saltzburg Keitel

Edward Norton as Conrad Earp

Adrien Brody as Schubert Green

Liev Schreiber as J.J. Kellogg

Hope Davis as Sandy Borden

Stephen Park as Roger Cho

Rupert Friend as Montana

Maya Hawke as June Douglas

Steve Carell as The Motel Manager

Matt Dillon as Hank

Hong Chau as Polly Green

Margot Robbie as The Actress

Jeff Goldblum as The Extra-Terrestrial

Tony Revolori as Aide-de-Camp

Grace Edwards as Dinah Campbell

Aristou Meehan as Clifford

Sophia Lillis as Shelly

Ethan Josh Lee as Ricky

Fisher Stevens as Detective #1

Preston Mota as Dwight

Jack Eyman as Kim

Bob Balaban as Larkings Executive

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Writer (story by)

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