You would be forgiven for seeing the trailers for Wes Anderson’s latest film Asteroid City and thinking “well, that looks like more of the same.” Because in many ways, it is. Anderson is a filmmaker whose style is so unique to him that his films, no matter the story or medium, always feel a little familiar to be original, at least outside his own work. It is in this way that many find Anderson alienating. His last film, The French Dispatch, was arguably his least accessible, so it is with great joy that Asteroid City becomes one of his most accessible.
As playwright Conrad Earp (Ed Norton) pens his latest production we are transported between the play’s rehearsals and the story of the play itself. The latter becomes the focal point as a group of young scientists, and their mismatched families, gather in the titular city to celebrate their inventions. There’s the grieving Augie (Jason Schwartzman), who is being pressured into speaking of his wife’s death to his children by his father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks). Movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), who is learning lines for her latest film, a gaggle of elementary school kids guided by their teacher June (Maya Hawke) and a five-star general (Jeffery Wright) there to hand out the awards.
So far, so Anderson. But Asteroid City often doesn’t quite conform to what you expect it to, and it is here that it stands out. The framing device of the play creates a wonderful Tom Stoppard come Charlie Kauffman level of symbolism. This isn’t just Anderson being quirky with retro-sci-fi imagery, he’s actively poking fun at himself and the creative process. At one point one of his characters says, “I still don’t understand the play” to which another responds with “Doesn’t matter, just keep telling the story.” This feels quintessentially Anderson, that more often than not his films don’t have a logic to them, but more a meandering story that, and this is especially true of City, you’re swept along by the characters.
Whatsmore, Anderson uses the play concept as a way of peeking behind the filmmaking process itself. Here is a filmmaker who takes great joy in creating films that read like a Haynes Car Manual. A beautiful diorama of tiny details to immerse yourself in. Here he uses it to smile-inducing levels, he wants us to see the moving parts backstage. He wants you to become part of his inventive process and yet, to his credit, he still manages to find often practical ways of making you ask, “how did he do that?”
What is always staggering about Anderson is the way he is able to conjure a spectrum of human emotions through characters he insists be as deadpan as possible. Wright is glorious here, a true Anderson actor who finds way of communicating disdain and frustration with the simplest of eye-flicks. Johansson, not for the first time cast as a bombshell starlet, oozes nonchalant sex appeal while also carrying a Marylin Monroe tragic air about her. But it’s Anderson mainstay Schwartzman who delivers a career best performance. His Augie is understated and yet injected with so much pathos. That he also plays the actor playing Augie with at one point brimming confidence before having a crisis of his ability is a delight.
Not a film that will convert those already alienated by Wes Anderson but for fans and those on the fence Asteroid City feels like a return to what he’s best at, conjuring whimsical characters that you genuinely care for. A quirky delight.
Asteroid City is available to download and keep now, and on Blu-ray and DVD from 25th September.