Wes Anderson's latest is a return to strong form
It has been some time since Wes Anderson became a genre unto himself, with his quirky dialogue, meticulous editing, and symmetrical cinematography. However, the American director was becoming a victim of his own style with his latest The French Dispatch (2021), which appeared to be like another director imitating his gimmicks. Thankfully, Anderson’s follow-up returns to a more dynamic and daring form of storytelling with Asteroid City (2023).
Asteroid City is a Russian nesting doll of stories within stories. We have a narrator (Bryan Cranston) recount the foibles of a playwright (Edward Norton) as he prepares to mount his play “Asteroid City.” We also get a filmed version of the play production itself, following the inhabitants of the titular Southwestern American settlement in the desert, which is visited upon by aliens. Periodically, between act breaks, we return to the narrator telling us of the difficulties and successes putting together the play.
Anderson has previously played around with this concept of meta storytelling. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) was a prime example of it, and The French Dispatch was certainly an experiment on this as well. Asteroid City, however, feels like the most personal exploration of storytelling by Anderson; surprising given the director usually keeps a distance with viewers through his style and cinematic mannerisms. Asteroid City is dives into the struggles and indecision of writing and preparing a play, about the beauty in artistic collaboration, and the desperate search for meaning. Through it all we get our typical Anderson characters, quirky and ruthlessly blunt.
In his character compositions, Anderson takes a deeper dive into a darkness than usual, only hinted at in his previous work such as The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and its exploration of grief and depression. Asteroid Cityand its character work shines particularly with the focus on the character Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and his delicious interactions with recluse movie star Midge (Scarlett Johansson), as they ponder existence, lust, and emotional repression.
Anderson brings about his signature look and feel to Asteroid City, which is always a relish to behold. With every one of the American director’s films, you can tell the dedication that has been put into every detail onscreen. Albeit I was a bit distracted by an indecisive screen ratio, which kept switching, not only between the different levels of storytelling, but within insert shots as well. Nevertheless, this small detail is easily ignored when engrossed in the humor and plotting.
Anderson, racks together his usual stellar cast roster, with Asteroid City seeming to have an interminable list of known faces. The enormous cast list fits seamlessly into the story, with big stars not afraid to take on bit roles for the sake of collaborating with the American auteur. We range from Anderson regulars such as Tilda Swinton, Tony Revolori, and Schwartzman, to new faces from the likes of Tom Hanks to Steve Carrell and Maya Hawke. Each scene is a Look-and-Find exercise of discovering a familiar face.
In the end, Asteroid City is a return to form from Anderson who had been boldly experimenting with less effective films recently. A more personalized exploration of storytelling and a seeping of his insecurities and creative process make for a more vulnerable and relatable story, albeit Anderson is still afraid of letting us get too close and skirts uglier emotional dimensions. Perhaps with some encouragement, Anderson will bring his unique style to these uncomfortable emotional wells next time.