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‘Asteroid City’ Review: Wes Anderson’s Cosmic Grief Comedy Is One of His Very Best Movies Yet

Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features releases the film in select theaters on Friday, June 16, with expansion to follow on Friday, June 23.

Like any movie by Wes Anderson, “Asteroid City” is the epitome of a Wes Anderson movie. A film about a television program about a play within a play “about infinity and I don’t know what else” (as one character describes it), this delightfully profound desert charmer — by far the director’s best effort since “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and in some respects the most poignant thing he’s ever made — boasts all of his usual hallmarks and then some. A multi-tiered framing device, diorama-esque shot design, and Tilda Swinton affectlessly saying things like “I never had children, but sometimes I wonder if I wish I should have” are just some of the many signature flourishes that you might recognize from Anderson’s previous work and/or the endless parade of A.I.-generated TikToks that imitate his style.

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As expected, the world of “Asteroid City” is meticulously arranged with clockwork precision, and — as expected — that world is then populated with memorable characters who try to assert the same degree of control over their own lives. Characters like Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a quietly grieving war photographer waiting for the perfect moment to tell his four young kids that their mom just died, as if there were a correct way to drop that kind of bomb on someone. “The time is never right,” he laments to the father-in-law who never liked him (a wonderfully sour Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak, a pistol always jammed down the front of his shorts). “The time is always wrong,” Stanley replies.

The good news for Augie is that his teenage son Woodrow (“Eighth Grade” standout Jake Ryan) is probably smart enough to figure it out on his own; after all, the science prodigy is one of four Space Cadets who’s been invited to the 1955 Junior Stargazer Convention in the tiny Southwestern outpost of Asteroid City, where they’ll get to show off their latest inventions to a government delegation that includes five-star general Grif Gribson (Jeffrey Wright) and famed astronomer Dr. Hickenlooper (Swinton).

Perhaps the most notable of the many other figures in town for the weekend is famous movie star Midge Campbell (a Scarlett Johansson, in full control of her own star power), who looks like Liz Taylor, takes after Marilyn Monroe, and materializes in the window opposite Augie’s motel room with the cosmic alignment of a solar eclipse. She’s always rehearsing for something, and never misses her cue. Her daughter Dinah, also being fêted in Asteroid City, will inspire a similar awe from Woodrow; par for the course in a film where love and loss orbit around each other in an endless chase, bound together by the gravity shared between them.

So far, so typical, even if Asteroid City itself is as vibrant and elaborate a location as Anderson has ever conceived. Home to exactly 87 people, this one-pump town is split along either side of a long desert highway and criss-crossed by a set of train tracks the government uses to transport everything from pecans to nuclear warheads. There’s a luncheonette with 12 stools, a motor-court with 10 cabins, and a vending machine where you can buy tiny plots of real estate as if they were candy bars. There’s an unfinished off-ramp that strands cars about 15 feet in the air, and — in the distance — a massive crater formed by a meteorite that’s been waiting at the bottom of it for who knows how many years.

Soaking up the “clean light” of the desert sun, Robert Yeoman’s camera reveals most of these sights to us in the span of a single 360-degree swivel, a flex that underlines Anderson’s absolute command over the film’s Chinchón set where his characters will soon be trapped against their will, thus forcing them to surrender the delusion of control that has defined so many of Anderson’s characters over the course of his career. It’s maybe the most radical thing that has ever happened in one of his movies — the sort of transformative moment that A.I. could never dream up no matter how much data it ingested — and it spins “Asteroid City” in a cosmic new direction. What until then was just another immaculate Wes Anderson film suddenly becomes one of a kind.

This review will take a farcically conservative approach to spoilers and stop short of anything revealed in the trailers, but let’s just say that all of the people in Asteroid City will be more directly confronted with the unknown than anyone in a Wes Anderson film has been before. Imagine if Mr. Fox’s encounter with the wolf on the hill came at the end of the first act instead of the end of the third, or if Steve Zissou came face-to-face with the jaguar shark that ate his friend just a few minutes after the jaguar shark ate his friend. Imagine if any of Anderson’s most resolute yet vulnerable characters — all of whom have devised intricate systems of living in order to impose some degree of control over a chaotic universe — were forced to reckon with their own helplessness right from the start.

Asteroid City
“Asteroid City”Focus Features

Like any Wes Anderson hero worth his salt, Augie Steenbeck is simply hoping to outrun his grief and self-doubt in the hopes that what comes next will magically reveal itself to him like the photographs that he develops in his portable darkroom. “Am I doing him right?,” Augie asks himself in a self-reflexive aside that takes full advantage of the movie’s spectacular framing device, posing the same question that so many of Anderson’s characters are implicitly asking themselves. But then an ellipsis appears in the space above him, interrupting the run-on sentence in Augie’s mind, and in a brilliant flash of green light it becomes clear that he will have to find his own way forward in this world, using the tools and people available to him. After that moment, neither he nor anyone else in Asteroid City will ever be able to shake the feeling that — quoth someone else — we’re all just characters in a play that we don’t understand.

In Asteroid City that might be a metaphor, but in “Asteroid City” it’s meant to be taken quite literally. It takes a while to understand what Anderson is doing with his latest and most convoluted series of nested framing devices, and the comically unhelpful speed at which Bryan Cranston blitzes through the initial set-up doesn’t seem to do the audience any favors. It’s clear enough that all of the people we meet in Asteroid City are also in a television production of an (unproduced) play of the same name, but why and to what end only reveals itself after time.

At first, that context and its subsequent intrusions upon the story — complete with scene headings that let you know exactly where you are in the film and what might be happening next — might feel like the overly fussy directorial flourishes of a filmmaker who’s often accused of indulging in such things at the audience’s expense. But, as is often the case in this filmmaker’s work, the self-reflexive layering is ultimately revealed to be for our benefit.

In Wes Anderson movies, every story has an author, and some of those authors have even been published. The title cards, chapter headings, and plays within plays (within television shows within films) conspire to reflect the insecurities of hyper-structured characters who are too fragile to confront the messiness of life head-on, or to see it clearly without a layer of remove. Their lives come pre-interpolated, like a dream that our brain has desperately tried to organize from the artillery spray of random neuronal firings, and that’s never been more true of anyone than it is of the people in Asteroid City — a perfect setting for Anderson’s dreamiest film, in the way that so many dreams stage hyper-detailed scenarios against the backdrop of an infinite void. Royal Tenenbaum only needed a narrator, but Augie Steenbeck requires such an elaborate framing device that it ultimately becomes impossible to parse where he ends and the next person begins.

"Asteroid City"
“Asteroid City”Focus Features

And so it goes with many of the characters in a movie that never lets you forget that Scarlett Johansson is an actress playing an actress who’s playing an actress. But if the interstitial scenes in “Asteroid City” are destabilizing by design (in a why is Augie suddenly making out with a Kentucky fried Edward Norton? sort of way), you don’t need an airtight grasp on the mechanics of how everything fits together in order to be knocked flat by the effect of feeling it all click into place.

This is a film that sneaks up on you — that fools you into thinking it’s just a scattershot collection of discrete little details and gags. There’s Matt Dillon as a deadpan mechanic, and there’s Maya Hawke singing a ditty with Jarvis Cocker, and… is that Bob Balaban hiding in the background over there? Some of the bits and bobs immediately feel like top-flight Anderson (e.g. the high-speed chase that loops through town, Liev Schreiber running around with a purple death ray), while others (the Junior Stargazers’ memory games, Steve Carrell’s ubiquitous hotel manager) left me wondering if “Asteroid City” were spreading itself too thin to mine anything meaningful from the grief comedy at its core.

But the deeper this movie disappears into itself, the more its play-like rhythms begin to create their own rhymes. Over time, it becomes increasingly clear that everything in “Asteroid City” is in service of Augie’s gnawing uncertainty and faltering resolve. Everything returns to the indivisibly Anderson-ian notion that whatever peace we can find in this world is dependent upon harnessing the various things we can never understand about it. For Augie, it’s his loss. For Woodrow, his wonder. “Use your grief,” one character instructs. “Trust your curiosity,” another implores. There are forces in the universe that Augie will never be able to capture on film, but “Asteroid City” suggests that’s all the more reason he should look for them through the lens of his camera.

If all of Anderson’s movies are sustained by the tension between order and chaos, uncertainty and doubt, “Asteroid City” is the first that takes that tension as its subject, often expressing it through the friction created by rubbing together its various levels of non-reality. Some might see that as self-amused navel-gazing, but the unexpected moment towards the end when Anderson finds a certain equilibrium between those contradictory forces — with a major assist from a movie star whose name you suddenly remember seeing in the credits some 100 minutes earlier — is so crushingly beautiful and well-earned that the artifice surrounding it simply falls away.

Will Augie ever see his wife again? It’s hard to say. But somewhere in Asteroid City, or in the play called “Asteroid City” within the play called “Asteroid City” within the television show whose title we either never learn or instantly forget, he will come to appreciate that death is just another of the great unknowns that we all have to live with in the waking dream we share together; a mystery both as cold as a meteorite at the bottom of a crater, and as infinite as the stars in the night sky above.

Grade: A

“Asteroid City” premiered in Competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in select theaters on Friday, June 16, with expansion to follow on Friday, June 23.

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