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Euronews Culture's Film of the Week: 'Asteroid City'

Scarlett Johansson in Asteroid City
Scarlett Johansson in Asteroid City Copyright Focus Features - Indian Paintbrush
Copyright Focus Features - Indian Paintbrush
By David Mouriquand
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Heartache, alien sightings and quarantine... Wes Anderson’s spin on the sci-fi genre only amounts to Close Encounters of the Exasperating Kind. Asteroid City ends up as his most parodical and emotionally unengaging film to date.

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A 1950s black-and-white television broadcast of “a new play created for the American stage” ushers the viewer into the latest Wes Anderson joint.

Our host (Bryan Cranston) talks of the Three-Act “fanciful telling” and introduces us to the next narrative layer about a photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his four children, who arrive in the desert town of Asteroid City – home to 87 people. The family (including delightfully sour father-in-law Tom Hanks) mourns the loss of the matriarch and is in town for precocious Rushmore -esque eldest, Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan), to present his latest invention at the Junior Stargazer festival. The astronomy convention features scientists (Tilda Swinton), military personnel (Jeffrey Wright) and movie stars (Scarlett Johansson), and will soon be disrupted by a world-changing event - followed by quarantine protocol Scrimmage Plan X which keeps everyone stuck in the remote location of First Contact.

It almost goes without saying at this point that if you're not already on board with Wes Anderson, you won't be converted by his next one. The filmmaker has become a genre to himself at this point. From AI approximations to TikTok pastiches via ‘Accidentally Wes Anderson’ books, his ornamental eccentricities and highly stylised visual aesthetic are culturally enshrined; Wes does what Wes does, and his films can’t be dismissed as anything but meticulously crafted confectionaries. No one is expecting him to suddenly pivot and go out in a blaze of cinéma verité for his next project.

But we could expect him to deliver something significantly less exhausting and parodical than Asteroid City.

It’s frustrating to what extent his latest film feels like that four-minute Family Guy parody about a playwright desperately trying to get his latest creation onto the stage, culminating in the review “Confusing, but not terrible.” 

(See below - skip to 2:57 for the play.)

There you have it in a nutshell. Asteroid City is not terrible but it doesn’t trouble the likes of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel – arguably his finest work to date. As for the confusing part, that comes with the overstuffed script, courtesy of Anderson and Roman Coppola. The omnipresent film-within-a-film scaffolding feels like a overly-complicated framing indulgence that doesn’t justify its existence like it did in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Grand Budapest Hotel. Here, it’s just plain annoying.

The remote and quarantined desert town was the perfect setup to spend time with the million more characters (Hope Davis, Liev Schreiber, Matt Dillon, Rupert Friend, Steve Carrell) and get to properly know Anderson’s catastrophically wounded rollcall of people who can't express their pain - a treasured family-in-crisis hallmark which he has aced in the past. 

However, the master of all things symmetrical only has style on the mind; he seems hellbent on keeping his audience at bay with a needless Matryoshka Doll framing device that wastes Margot Robbie, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody and Hong Chau in glorified cameos. This narrative affectation kills any sense of intimacy and yields no payoff. Remove it and there’s the faintest possibility of emotional engagement and enough to go on about our place in the universe and how you should “use your grief” and “trust your curiosity”; keep it in so prevalently, and it's an episodic mess that reduces its players as props in a hyper-stylised setting.

Focus Features - Indian Paintbrush
Asteroid City (2023)Focus Features - Indian Paintbrush

Say what you will about the uneven The French Dispatch, but Anderson’s penultimate film feels less unfocused in retrospect. At least it allowed the viewer to fully bathe in 1970s France and took the time for an emotional payoff. Asteroid City doesn’t trouble itself with such things.

Even the needle-drops, a core element of Anderson’s work being music, feel predictable and uninspired here. His soundtracks in the past have always opted for the less obvious. Who can forget the Brazilian Bowie covers in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, that terrific inclusion of The Faces’ ‘Ooh La La’ to cap off Rushmore, or Elliott Smith’s 'Needle In The Hay' in The Royal Tenenbaums? But in Asteroid City, the mere inclusion of The Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group & Nancy Whiskey’s ‘Freight Train’ feels downright rote.

Wesheads will rightly marvel at his fussy aesthetics and quirky flourishes, and it can’t be denied that that meek extra-terrestrial cameo is a moment of true magic. But when magic is wasted on cramming in as many players as possible in an admittedly impressive casting coup, all you’re left with is a shallow and alien-ating movie that’s a little too pleased with itself.

"You can't wake up if you don't fall asleep," we're repeatedly told. After seeing Asteroid City, we may not bother waking up for the next one.

Asteroid City is out is cinemas now.

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