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Review: Asteroid City (2023)

Asteroid City (2023)

Directed by: Wes Anderson

Premise: A frame narrative. The outer narrative is the production of a television drama and the inner narrative is the drama itself in which families gather at an asteroid crater site to accept their children’s science project awards. They are visited by an extraterrestrial.

What Works: Like most Wes Anderson films, Asteroid City has a distinct style in its production design, cinematography, and performances. The art direction of Asteroid City is impressive in its detail. The inner narrative frame contains a detailed and vividly created world. The film uses visual cues to distinguish between the narrative frames, namely the different aspect ratios and color saturation. The performances are pitched to match the style. Anderson’s writing has a singular sense of humor and the actors get it, delivering their unusual lines with conviction. The dialogue is a source of a lot of the film’s humor and Asteroid City is, in places, very funny. The highlight of Asteroid City is the relationship between a Hollywood actress and a recent widower, played by Scarlett Johansson and Jason Schwartzman. These people come from different worlds but they are flung together in an unusual situation and the love story between them allows Anderson’s aloof style to give way to something organic and real.

What Doesn’t: After several decades of moviemaking, Wes Anderson’s style is familiar and Asteroid City comes across as a filmmaker working on autopilot. The craftsmanship is impressive. Nothing here is lazy. But Asteroid City feels generically Wes Anderson. Even the dialogue, particular as it is, all feels more or less the same. Every character speaks in the same style and vocabulary. While it’s all consistent with the style, it’s also flat. Other Wes Anderson films didn’t have that problem; the characters of The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom had much more variety and with that humanity. There’s not much going on underneath Asteroid City. It’s a kooky story of people working together under unusual circumstances. That in itself is not a problem but there’s just not much to this film beyond its style. The story of Asteroid City is told in a frame narrative but if the filmmakers ditched the outer frame the movie would play mostly the same. If the outer frame reset or enhanced our understanding of the inner frame and the story and performances therein it would count for something but the outer frame doesn’t add much and in fact takes away from the drama of the inner frame by rendering it artificial.

Bottom Line: Asteroid City is unmistakably a Wes Anderson film but in a superficial way. The movie has tremendous style but it lacks substance. Anderson is at risk of plateauing as a filmmaker and at this point in his career he needs to do something different or challenging.

Episode: #956 (July 9, 2023)