‘Asteroid City’ Review: Wes Anderson Firing on All Cylinders

Wes Anderson's Asteroid City poster.

Note from Marvelous Geeks’ Team: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the [series/movie/etc] being covered here wouldn’t exist. We stand with and for them.

Asteroid City is a return to form for Wes Anderson as he explores the raw human connections we have with each other through the lens of whimsy and eccentricity. Anderson is at his best when he’s able to focus his stories on fractured relationships becoming whole again, as well as the new ones people make along the way.

Though the film has been out for a little while now and is officially available on VOD, this review will remain mostly spoiler-free. However, it’s hard to discuss this film without diving a little bit into spoiler territory, so be cautious, stargazers and space cadets! There is this continued fascination with the juxtaposition of cowboys and aliens. It’s been explored in films such as Nope, Toy Story, and Cowboys & Aliens. Wes Anderson is another creative bringing his unique spin on the old and new world meeting, with more focus on a fictional desert town in 1950s New Mexico.

On the technical front, Asteroid City continues with the quirks and traits that are signature Wes Anderson. Starting with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson employs a similar narrative framing structure that visually matches it. He experimented with this in The French Dispatch as well, telling three anthology stories being compiled into a magazine. Here in Asteroid City, the color and aspect ratio change to reflect switches between the stage play and the broadcast program about it. This framing structure gives each of the performances additional depth.

A notable difference from previous Wes Anderson films is a decreased reliance on a score with his longtime collaborator, Alexandre Desplat. Anderson trades out an orchestra for a 1950s soundtrack, including an original song. However, the score isn’t absent. When Desplat’s music does come in, it captures the wonder and awe of the extraterrestrial anomaly that impacts the inhabitants of Asteroid City. There’s something so quiet about it and precious, emulating pure awe.

Steve Carrell in Asteroid City
©Focus Features

Joining in on the fun of Wes Anderson’s regular troupe, actors such as Steve Carrell, Maya Hawke, Hope Davis, Matt Dillon, Rita Wilson, and Tom Hanks step into this world like they’ve been there for years — particularly Tom Hanks, who plays the father-in-law to Jason Schwarzman within the play. For someone as iconic (and I do mean iconic), it’s refreshing to watch him immerse himself in Anderson’s sandbox. As Stanley Zak, he provides some warmth despite his own character’s process of losing his daughter and making sense of his relationship with his son-in-law and grandchildren. Truly, all of the new actors keep the rhythm with Anderson’s snappy dialogue. In the words of Adrien Brody’s character, they’ve become part of his world with such ease. 

Speaking of Adrien Brody, Anderson gives audiences a mini Darjeeling Limited reunion between him and Jason Schwartzman. The two played brothers, alongside Owen Wilson, as they both grappled with the death of their father a year later while on vacation in India. It’s a small moment, but seeing the two together after all this time feels special. It also helps make up for the fact that Owen Wilson and Bill Murray are both noticeably absent from the film. They have been mainstays in Anderson films from The Royal Tenenbaums onward. (It’s important to note that Owen Wilson’s first Anderson film was Bottle Rocket, and Bill Murray’s was Rushmore.)

Scarlett Johansson in Wes Anderson's Asteroid City.
©Focus Features

Of the main stars, Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson equally stand out as Augie Steenback/Jones Hall and Midge Campbell/Mercedes Ford, respectively. They each carry their melancholy as two broken people trying to figure out what comes next and how to be present for their children. The war photographer and the actress have their battles to fight, and thanks to a junior stargazer event (and a UFO sighting), they slowly help each other heal throughout the play. Not to mention, their chemistry is exceptional as they share conversations from across their motel rooms.

Another quick highlight from the cast that seems overlooked when talking about Asteroid City is the core four teens: Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, Sophia Lillis, and Ethan Josh Lee. The typical Wes Anderson adolescent is often more intelligent (mentally and emotionally) than the adults surrounding them. When the four of them are together, they have pitch-perfect chemistry found in an Anderson teenage character. Jake Ryan already enclosed experience as part of the troop in Moonrise Kingdom; seeing him in more of a leading role showcases the skills he has acquired under Anderson’s tutelage.

And then there’s Margot Robbie. I know most of us have been in Barbie mode since the very first image of Greta Gerwig’s film dropped online. Still, seeing her name as part of the ensemble had me really excited because A) she’s working with another legendary auteur and B) I was curious to see how Anderson would utilize her skills in another stacked ensemble. (She has been hidden from much of the promotional material because she’s not featured much in the film.) Robbie plays Augie’s deceased wife and Stanley Zak’s daughter. Her scenes in the stage play are scrapped, but her appearance towards the end of the film gets to the core of what makes this film special.

 Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks playing father in law and son in Asteroid City.
©Focus Features

While his films are made up of idiosyncratic characters framed in perfectly symmetrical shots, Wes Anderson is at his best when his films revolve around family and grief. In the context of Asteroid City, it’s a play about grief during an extraordinary event. However, outside of the fictional production, Schwartzman’s Jones Hall is dealing with his own loss. He and the playwright of “Asteroid City,” Conrad Earp, played by Edward Norton, were secretly in a relationship. During the run of the play, Earp dies.

Like his stage character, Jones struggles to deal with his grief. He feels like something is missing from his performance, not understanding how to tap into the grief his character is feeling. He leaves mid-performance for a smoke break when he finds Margot Robbie on one from the play she’s currently in. She was to play Augie’s deceased wife and be featured in a dream sequence that was ultimately scrapped. During this smoke break, she recites her scrapped lines. In her brief monologue, Augie’s deceased wife tells him he can love again after losing her. She breaks through to Jones, getting to the heart of what has been missing for him.

Asteroid City is Wes Anderson firing at all cylinders and reminding audiences why we’re drawn to his films in the first place. While I don’t think Asteroid City will be known as Anderson’s best film, its unique framing, storytelling, and ambiguous ending demand repeat visits to this desert town. Even though he’s at the center of a recent TikTok trend, Anderson is singular in his type of filmmaking. There’s a reason why his signature style has lasted as long as it has— it’s backed up by deep storytelling that’s endlessly relatable, even if the style and aesthetic are anything but.

First Featured Image Credit: ©Focus Features


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