Featuring caricature characters adorned in garish colors, with a plot that emphasizes repetitive themes in the service of style, Wes Anderson’s latest film further proves the writer/director has created the Marvel Cinematic Universe for people who love farmers’ markets. The comparison is fair, but that description is admittedly overly harsh. I’m still smarting from when my B- review of “Moonrise Kingdom” prompted mustachioed suspenders-wearers to throw social media stones at me.
“Asteroid City” is insufferable to those of us who long ago waved bon voyage to Anderson’s melancholy whimsy and undoubtedly a treat to those who still devour his schtick as arthouse comfort food. Feast away, you children of “Amélie,” you grandchildren of “Harold and Maude.”
This time out, Anderson adds what is my least favorite conceit to his bag of trick. Yes, that last word was intentionally singular. “Asteroid City” opens with Bryan Cranston as a narrator explaining that Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) wrote the titular play, which will be the movie that we’re about to watch. Or something. It’s a meta-conceit that, as most do, does functionally little to actually further the themes or plot but puts a big imaginary neon arrow above the head of the writer/director.
In the play, which is the bulk of the movie, Augie (Jason Schwartzman) gets waylaid in a small desert town. Shortly after his wife’s death, Augie drives his daughters to see his son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), acknowledged for silly scientific progress. Renowned actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) is there for her daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards), to be similarly acknowledged. A host of other folks attending the event, played by delightful performers, all get quarantined in the town after an alien encounter. This is movie about grief, free will, romance, optimism, and pessimism in the sense that all of those ideas appear without any actual commentary or reflection upon them.
Maybe that’s my biggest issue with late-stage Anderson: His movies are awash with unpacked referents, which many give him credit for “exploring.” Having the ingredients for a cake in the pantry is not the same as baking one, even if you throw decorative icing all over the various components. The meta elements seemingly reiterate that Anderson’s choice to avoid insightful conclusions is purposeful. At one point, Conrad Earp contemplates writing a line of dialogue explaining why one of his characters does a particularly odd thing. He opts against it. His reasoning is that there’s no need to make it explicit. This belies the truth, which is that nobody here is actually saying anything specific.
Aside from a chant near the film’s conclusion, which may or may not have been intentionally hilarious, little of the humor lands. Perhaps it does, but I’m immune to it, given my growing intolerance for Anderson only allowing his performers to explore a shoebox-sized acting range. Sorkin’s characters may be universally verbose, and Taratino’s may all launch into wild tangents, but at least each cast member gets to vary their vocals and use their face muscles.
The plot spins its wheels while staring at the stars. The cast fizzles more than sizzles. The whole thing feels inert, like a brick painted in pastels with a French phrase written on it: “Fin.” Loyal Andersonites rejoice and know that I am not judging you for loving another edition of a very specific thing that you love. I’m just happy to be leaving “Asteroid City” limits.
Grade = C-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Katie Smith-Wong at Flicks.co.uk says “A simple concept it may be, with its elevated combination of space exploration, modern technology and alien paranoia, the COVID-inspired narrative, folksy soundtrack, and retro setting bring out buried yet personal emotions among the ensemble.”
Kristy Puchko at Mashable says “the most beautiful and profound element of this complicated comedy is how Anderson urges us to step back and consider not only this story, but also those that pump behind it, and the ones behind those, and so on.”
Charles Pulliam-Moore at The Verge says “More often than not, ‘Asteroid City’ feels like it’s piling on visual tricks meant to dazzle you in place of true chemistry between characters or cohesion between plot lines that might work to illustrate a larger point.”