Somewhere around the release of “The French Dispatch,” it seemed that a lot of the casual moviegoing community decided that they were over the Wes Anderson experiment. Now that we are more than two decades removed from “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” the films that made him a household name, the slavish dedication to Anderson’s specific brand of moviemaking seems to have run its course with a lot of the public. Despite my belief that “The French Dispatch” was a major return to form and the best of his output since “Moonrise Kingdom,” its pandemic release and the sale of distributor Fox Searchlight to Disney made it come and go with little fanfare. Anderson’s newest feature, “Asteroid City,” received strong word of mouth coming out of its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, but while the consensus is that it’s a true return to form for the director, will that be enough to bring back those who have grown tired of more of the same?
Considering all the trailers and promotional material focused solely on the bright pastel colors of the desert town of Asteroid City, it’s a bit of a surprise when the film opens to a stark 4:3 black-and-white shot of an empty stage as a narrator (Bryan Cranston) describes the life of writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), whose last major work is the very film we are about to see. The film proceeds to use this documentary of sorts as a framing device, interjecting into the main story from time to time to provide backstory or context both in the story and out of it. Still, the majority of the film follows Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a recently widowed father of four taking his kids to go live with his father-in-law (Tom Hanks), with a quick stopover in Asteroid City to celebrate his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan), who has been named as a finalist in the junior stargazing inventing competition. But a broken-down car and a life-changing experience force them to stay far beyond their expectations, and Augie finds himself enraptured with movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson).
The design of the film is certainly Anderson’s most formally daring since “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which also utilized a story-within-a-story structure and different aspect ratios to denote changes in the narrative approach. I had some difficulties with that structure, which is why I was not nearly as high on it as the rest of the world. Here, a lot of those concerns remain, as I found myself far more engaged in the Asteroid City story itself than its behind-the-scenes framing device. There are multiple cases in the film where it abruptly cuts back to Cranston or Norton or his bombastic artistic collaborator Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), often at a time when the plot is really starting to cook. It’s also not always clear how the two parts of the film thematically connect. Moments such as a background piece of Earp talking to the actor playing Augie seem designed to provide some extra insight, but we get plenty of that over the course of the core story, so it seems perhaps not misplaced but superfluous. Considering that, the interruptions don’t quite land the way Anderson presumably intends.
What’s important, though, is how great the actual time spent in Asteroid City is. The regular Wes Anderson players (Schwartzman, Liev Schreiber, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, et al) are joined by some very enjoyable new blood (Matt Dillon, Hope Davis, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell and more) to make for just the sort of story he excels at telling. Hanks is a similar sort of revelation that Wright was in “The French Dispatch,” making you wonder just why it took so long to cast him in one of these. He’s clearly playing the sort of role that Bill Murray usually handles but is perhaps an even better fit than Anderson’s elder statesman without the extra baggage. It’s a small role, but one where you can’t wait to see him pop up again.
The key, though, is Schwartzman, who finds himself as a lead in an Anderson movie for the first time since “The Darjeeling Limited” back in 2007. His world-weary photographer seems barely conscious at times, distracted by the enormity of his loss to such a point that he hardly notices the chemistry he’s developing with Midge. It also makes him an excellent foil for the escalating ridiculousness around him, whether it’s a series of teenage inventions that range from a jetpack to a fully functional death ray to a device that imprints anything it views onto the face of the moon; a constantly recurring (and never explained) car chase between gangsters and police that drives through town at regular intervals; or a vending machine that offers deeds to small plots of land just outside the town limits. And that’s all before an abrupt alien arrival causes the entire cast to be trapped in town via government mandate.
As can often be the case with Anderson, he’s an incredibly incisive and often hilarious director when his material works, but when it doesn’t click, he can create rather ponderous and navel-gazing work. There are moments of the behind-the-scenes/documentary sequences that work more than they don’t, most of which involve the always-game Adrien Brody, but it never feels essential. Personally, I would have preferred to spend that extra time further exploring the eccentricities of the fiction around Asteroid City itself, but luckily, there is plenty of that to go around. It’s an odd situation to find yourself in, struggling with the purpose of a piece of art that entertains you far more than it doesn’t but makes the sort of decisions that clearly have a justification that remains ever so slightly out of your grasp. I don’t see myself returning to “Asteroid City” as much as “Moonrise Kingdom” or “The French Dispatch,” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to love in this strange little pitstop of a town in the middle of the desert.
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Jake Ryan, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Willem Dafoe, Hong Chau, Maya Hawke
Director: Wes Anderson