Asteroid City: A quirky, profound delight
James R | On 09, Sep 2023
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum
“I still don’t understand the play,” admits Jones Hall, an actor played by Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson’s latest. Jones is an abrupt man who auditions for the role of Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer, in the new play by esteemed writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). That play, Asteroid City, is directed by Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), and introduced to us via a TV recording, presented by an unnamed host (Bryan Cranston). We follow all of these people as we also enter the pastel-washed world of the fictional city, where Augie and his kids end up when their car break down at a motel. If you don’t understand what’s going on at this point, well, that is the point.
The reason for Augie’s trip is to take his shy son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), to a stargazing science competition. The city’s reason for hosting it is the fact that, 5,000 years ago, an alien visited and left behind a crater and a fragment of meteorite. Fears of the alien’s return ultimately lead to the entire city being placed under lockdown, leaving not just Augie’s family stranded but everyone else they meet too.
They’re certainly an eccentric bunch, from Steve Carrell’s motel manager, who has invented a vending machine that makes cocktails by clockwork, to Matt Dillon’s friendly mechanic, not to mention Jeffrey Wright’s military officer overseeing the quarantine, Tilda Swinton’s scientist eager to find out more and Maya Hawke’s school teacher trying to keep education going as normal. And, driving in to try and help the family, is Auggie’s disapproving father-in-law Stanley, played by Tom Hanks.
The latter is one of the inspired additions to Anderson’s ensemble of regulars, following in Wright’s footsteps from The French Dispatch by giving Anderson’s signature dialogue – stilted, but unfiltered – a different energy and personality. The standout casting decision, though, is Scarlett Johansson, who plays Midge Campbell, a jaded Hollywood star with a morbid streak – and a daughter, Dinah, who is also attending the science convention.
Midge and Auggie hit it off thanks to what they discover is a shared experience of grief and pain, and their frank exchanges are as charged as they are moving, with Johansson and Schwartzman bringing a depth that can sometimes seem elusive in the face of Anderson’s quirky stylistic flourishes. The brief appearance of Margot Robbie as the actor meant to play the mother of Auggie’s three daughters in the play adds a layer of meta-emotions that feeds into the poignant undercurrents – while still allowing a debate about Tupperware between the kids and Hanks’ caring grandpa to be laugh-out-loud funny.
Things slow down to a deliberate snail’s pace, as Anderson allows us to roam through his response to the limbo of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns. Amid the precise detailed pastel-coloured production design, a sleepy profundity settles over the study of loss, confusion, isolation and unspoken panic. The fact that Asteroid City manages to do that while still featuring Jeff Goldblum as a stop-motion alien and Rupert Friend as a hysterical singing cowboy makes this unlikely sci-fi one of Anderson’s most rounded works to date.
The result is an offbeat yet moving tale of how humankind (sometimes futilely) seeks meaning in a situation where there are no answers – and a reminder that the only way to move on from something is to journey through it. Don’t understand what’s going on? “It doesn’t matter,” Jones is told. “Just keep telling the story.”