Asteroid City ★★★1/2
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You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep
It goes without saying that film is an emotional medium, replete with fear, jealousy, hatred, love, rejection, loneliness, triumph, failure, revenge, pain and suffering, and every other emotion or emotional experience one can imagine. It goes without saying, that is, unless you’re inside Wes Anderson’s head, a place where emotion, while acknowledged, is held at arm’s length.
Asteroid City (Pop. 87) is an obvious stage set of the televised version of the play, but it takes on a kind of reality in writer and director Wes Anderson's hands.
Anderson’s perspective on emotion is apparent from the first scenes of “Asteroid City,” when Augie Steinbeck’s family of 5 pulls into the (too) brightly colored desert town of Asteroid City (population 87) with car trouble. That’s bad—potentially plenty of anxiety—until a mechanic (Matt Dillon in full vaudeville mode) pronounces the car useless, and we “learn” (if one ever learns anything for sure in an Anderson film) that Augie’s intellectual son, Woodrow, is a participant in the Junior Stargazer convention, held in that town. And that Augie and Woodrow and maybe the rest of the family are actors in a play (with Asteroid City the set) that seems to encompass everything that happens in the town, including the convention. Of course there’s a “play within the play,” and “backstage” scenes (where the play is written), in black and white, that offer still another reality—and an alien from outer space (Jeff Goldblum) that may or may not, like everything else, be in “in the play.” Oh, and what we’re seeing isn’t just a play, but a television production of the play, emceed by Bryan Cranston, as the switch to a 1950s’ television screen shape (the “Academy ratio”), along with the black and white picture, reminds us.
The brianiac teens are in Asteroid City for their Junior Stargazer convention. Woodrow (Jake Ryan), second from right, and Dinah (Grace Edwards), center, have a bit of a love interest, but like most of the emotional connections in the film, it doesn't go anywhere.
Levels of “reality” is an Anderson technique for distancing the viewer from emotion.
Levels of “reality” is an Anderson technique for distancing the viewer from emotion. If one can’t be sure what’s “real” and what’s not, what matters? Staging plays a role, too. War photographer Augie (Jason Schwartzman, playing Augie and the actor who plays Augie) develops a relationship with actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson, playing Midge and the actress who plays Midge), but with the exception of one brief and enigmatic scene, that relationship is conducted entirely at distance, from open windows on two adjacent cottages. Brainiac Woodrow has a crush on Midge’s daughter, but nothing comes of it. There’s potential for conflict between Augie and his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), who detests Augie, but that tension is dissipated when Stanley announces, “I kind of like it here in the desert.”
Right, the fraught trio of Dad Augie
(Jason Schwartzman), son Woodrow
(Jake Ryan), and father-in-law
Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks).
Another scenario fraught with possibilities has Augie, whose wife has been dead for 3 weeks (and whose ashes he’s carrying around in a Tupperware bowl), finally telling his kids their mom isn’t coming back. Again, nothing much happens. The closest the film comes to consummating a relationship features 2 minor characters—cowboy Montana and Christian leader June, dancing joyfully, for a few moments, to a country tune. Anderson’s employment of a bevy of Hollywood stars ensures that we’ll be thinking more about Johansson than Midge, and more about Hanks than Zak. And so on (for your viewing pleasure, the platoon of known actors is listed in the “Starring” credits below).
As in Jordan Peele’s “Nope” of last year, the alien scenes are purposefully crude, suggesting the 21st century has moved beyond a fascination with extraterrestrials.
In spite of what could be a set-up for cynicism, Anderson’s world view is quite positive. He values the simple pleasures of life, including, in this film, exploring the universe, sharing scientific knowledge with like-minded others, flirtation, humor, the writing of a play, adventure, even awe. To foreground and savor those pleasures, he keeps what’s threatening limited, at bay. Among the teenage nerds, there’s no excess of competition that could make some feel inferior and unhappy. Light romance never turns toward ugliness and rejection—or true love, with its complications, for that matter. The alien poses no real danger; cowboy Montana opines, “I reckon that alien didn't mean no harm. No, he ain't American. No, he ain't a creature of God's Earth, but he's a creature of somewhere.” And, as in Jordan Peele’s “Nope” of last year, the alien scenes are purposefully crude, suggesting the 21st century has moved beyond a fascination with extraterrestrials. And though there’s an atomic bomb test in the not-too-distant background, the Cold War doesn’t evoke danger either, even though the film is set in the 1950s, perhaps to recreate some of that era’s more simplistic wonder and amazement.
A courtship carried on between cabin windows, here Scarlett Johansson (as Midge or the actress who plays Midge) and Jason Schwartzman (as Augie or the actor who plays Augie).
The personal interactions are real enough—one cares that Midge and Augie are learning about and fond of each other—but also stylized, in a way that prevents the film from being drawn into melodrama (and worse), and everything getting too serious. Anderson is the master of the mixed, half-way, feeling, as he’s displayed in many of his films, including “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014) and “The French Dispatch” (2021). He allows for people engaging with and caring for one another, yet is unwilling to let them fully explore their desires or concerns. Midge can admit that she loves her kids but is not a good mother, and Augie that he once contemplated abandoning his children, but neither comment moves beyond the stark statement.
Above, the spectacle after word of the alien gets out evokes the one in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," when 2 children claim they saw the Virgin Mary. In Anderson's film, the spectacle dissipates quickly.
Anderson’s love of spectacle and its necessary other side, audiences, are also on display in “Asteroid City,” which is—as a stage set—a spectacle in itself. An audience of the science kids and their parents enjoys military and astronomy briefings, as well as the spectacle of the alien ship and the cautious alien emerging from it. When word spreads that an alien has landed, Anderson creates a scene evoking Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”—a 1950s American “miracle” referencing a 1958 incident near Terni, Italy. Throngs arrive to “witness” the alien, much as they did to witness the two Italian children who purportedly saw the Virgin Mary. All these events (along with the nearby mushroom cloud and a rebellion against the military lockdown) are over quickly, Anderson again withholding emotion, in this case the thrill of adventure that normally accompanies spectacle.
Anderson's film functions as a kind of dream in which human relationships are never taken beyond that critical stage where “reality” might intrude and spoil things.
“You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.” That line is repeated in the film, becoming a mantra, suggesting that one can’t do creative work—as a playwright or scientist, for example—unless you’ve fallen asleep, perchance to dream. Anderson is a dreamer, and his film functions as a kind of dream—not a nightmare, but a dream—in which conflicts are magically resolved (or never broached) and human relationships are never taken beyond that critical stage where “reality” might intrude and spoil things.
One might think of Anderson’s world as naïve, unrealistic, intellectually pretentious, or simply idiosyncratic. But it makes more sense to applaud this unusual filmmaker for what he has not said and not filmed. Do we really need to know that Midge and Augie don’t have much to say to each other? Do we really want Augie’s kids, on learning of their mother’s death weeks after the fact, to require psychiatric help? Do we need one more scene of an alien who’s nasty, or who craves understanding? Can we do without melodrama?
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Maya Hawke, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Wright, Hope Davis, Steve Park, Liev Schreiber, Tom Hanks, Matt Dillon, Steve Carell, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards
Running time: 104 minutes
Country: United States
Other Awards: One nomination to date, for the Cannes Palme d’Or (Anderson)