One either loves Wes Anderson or hates him. His style is not only not going to change, but one senses he's going to double down on it. Asteroid City is his latest twee adventures into WASP weariness, albeit with a surprisingly (Academy-appropriate) diverse cast. If you love Anderson, you'll like Asteroid City. If you detest him, you'll hate Asteroid City. It's as simple as that.
Wrapped within not one but three layers, Asteroid City is a late-1950s television special where the Rod Serling-like host (Bryan Cranston) invites us to see the creating and staging of the play "Asteroid City". The play "Asteroid City" is being written by Tennessee Williams-like playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton).
"Asteroid City" the play transitions back-and-forth to Asteroid City the story. Here, emotionally stunted war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) is taking his oldest child, son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to the eponymous town in the American Southwest desert. Woodrow is one of five winners of a Junior Stargazing contest where each is to be presented a special citation for their distinct astronomical creation. They are also finalists for a major scholarship, the winner to be determined by General Grif Grierson (Jeffrey Wright).
Another of the Junior Stargazers is Dinah (Grace Edwards), who has the added benefit of being the daughter of Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a glamourous but forlorn movie star (a mix of Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe with a hint of Marlene Dietrich). Augie has an issue: his wife died but he is struggling to tell his four kids of the fact. He also has car issues while in Asteroid City. For help on both fronts, he needs his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks). As these various groups gather in Asteroid City, they get an unexpected visitor from outer space, and with that comes their quarantine. Will the various characters in Asteroid City find peace and love? Will the actors in "Asteroid City" understand their motivations? Will anyone wake up if they don't fall asleep?
There are three types of filmgoers. The first simply loves all Wes Anderson films, finding his oeuvre quirky and delightful. The second simply despises all Wes Anderson films, finding his oeuvre smug and pretentious. The third has no idea who Wes Anderson is and does not care. I fall between the first and second, depending on the film. I have loved some of his films (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom). I have detested some of his films (Darjeeling Limited, Isle of Dogs). I think it depends on how much tolerance I have for "quirky and delightful" versus "smug and pretentious". Asteroid City veers towards the latter, but not enough for me to thoroughly condemn.
Part of the issue with me is that I am, by now, fully aware of Anderson's style. He will not change. He will always direct his cast to speak in a very staccato manner, strip them of all emotion, keep them pretty much deadpan. He will always focus on the deliberately artificial look of his film, not bothering to create anything close to what reality is like. He will always put WASP or WASP-like Jewish characters and their various existentialist crises at the heart of his stories. It's not as if Anderson would ever try to make something remotely realistic.
Therefore, I accept how Asteroid City is. He keeps within his milieu of oh so lonely and desperate people, of teenagers smarter than everyone else but still emotionally stunted, and the pretty visuals. It's no use getting mad about his style. It is what it is.
What I did find in Asteroid City is that, for all of Anderson's deliberately quirky and cutesy manner, it might have worked better if he had opted to not make his screenplay (with story by himself and Roman Coppola) less clever. Perhaps if he had opted to stay with just the events at Asteroid City versus his "play within a television special" manner, we might have had a better film. The shifting from the televised show to the play production to the alleged play itself sometimes was jarring. It, in my view, needlessly interrupted the flow of the story.
Furthermore, it felt as if it was there just to allow some of Anderson's regulars a chance to appear because Anderson could not fit them in Asteroid City itself. While Schwartzman shifts between "Asteroid City" the play and Asteroid City itself, others stay firmly within one or the other. Anderson regulars Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody and Norton never cross from one to the other. More bizarrely, Cranston does, making things if not confusing at least curious.
You have some people appearing for just one scene. I can grant a little leeway to Margot Robbie, who appears to be reviving her Mary Queen of Scots performance as Elizabeth I as the actress/character cut from the production. What, however, was the point of Hong Chau's sole appearance as Polly, soon-to-be ex-wife to Adrien Brody's "Asteroid City" director Shubert Green? Moreover, what was the point of the Earp-Green romance? It just is pointless as it adds nothing to the film.
The conspiratorial side of me thinks this was done so that Asteroid City could meet all the diversity qualifications the Academy now insists on for Best Picture consideration. How else to explain Chau appearing for exactly one scene that adds nothing to the overall story. How else to explain the same-sex romance between writer and director which again adds nothing to the overall story. That you apparently can feature a same-sex romance on 1955 television makes things slightly more puzzling.
When one watches a Wes Anderson movie, you do not really bother with performances. Everyone is pretty stoic, emotionless, remote. As such, everyone here pretty much kept to that style. Schwartzman had essentially two characters to play: Augie and the actor playing the character. He showed more emotion when playing the actor, but for the bulk of Asteroid City he was Augie. Johansson was better than her "I want to be alone" actress.
Asteroid City is there to look at. The film does have the positives of a strong aesthetic, mixing a deliberately cutesy look with a more realistic early television look. Anderson does know his history: Midge's bathtub death reenactment clearly echoing Jacques-Louis David's Death of Marat. I do wonder if the song Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven) will receive a Best Original Song nomination. The song does reflect Asteroid City as a whole: having two tones with nary rhyme or reason.
It is clear that Asteroid City sticks with the Andersonian manner. If you like that style, you'll like Asteroid City. If you hate that style, you'll hate Asteroid City. You can't wake up if you don't fall asleep. The trouble is you might fall asleep at Asteroid City.