Film Review: Asteroid City
By Joseph Beyer | July 8, 2023
While the conventions of a play within a play or a film within a film are well known and explored, Wes Anderson’s delightful desert romp Asteroid City is neither, but instead, something new. A film within a play? A Greek tragedy within a government amusement park? An allegory within a slideshow?
Whatever else it may be, Asteroid City is a moving image marvel that will deliver all the feels for fans of Anderson’s offbeat storytelling style. (For those unfamiliar with his fairy-tale flare for patter and dialogue, short interstitial scenes, and supersaturated visuals, the film could feel impenetrable.)
Asteroid City begins and ends with a chorus of sorts and a voice-of-God narrator in Bryan Cranston, who brings a nostalgic Our Town colloquialism to his role guiding the exposition and narrative along. We learn quickly we are watching a production—a fantasy and perhaps the private inner world where the script’s writer and characters merge together. Edward Norton plays the playwright Conrad Earp, who is crafting this tale as it plays out in front of our eyes and who could possibly be Anderson or his screenwriting partner Roman Coppola’s alter ego if you’d like to go there.
The bizarro collection of characters centers around a soft-spoken war photographer Augie Steenbeck (played with quiet gusto by Jason Schwartzman), who arrives in Asteroid City due to car trouble only to be held there against his will. Complicating matters, the photographer who confronts death on a daily basis struggles to find a way to explain his wife’s recent passing to his young children.
The Steenbecks and others have all gathered in Asteroid City for the annual Junior Space Cadet convention, a science-meets-scouting event that pairs genius teenagers together with a government eager to tap into and exploit their discoveries. The convention features a central competition of ideas, eclipse watching, and the occasional thermo-nuclear blast safely in the distance.
Anderson controls it all in a series of acts and scenes that give him the structure to quickly bounce around and explore all his fascinating storylines, of which there are many. As he has in the past, the director manages to find enough threads to tie everything together in the end and leave you haunted by a bittersweet experience of sorrow and joy.
The famous ensemble includes celebrity standout Jeffrey Wright as General Gibson, a five-star military man who delivers modern space directives to the convention audience with the same spirit and vigor as Pershing on the Western Front. Equally entrancing is Scarlett Johansson as the wayward starlet Midge Campbell, who develops intimate friendships with strangers using only her magnetic melancholy from across a window.
Adding to the fun are Tom Hanks as a wealthy snowbird; Tilda Swinton as an astronomer fascinated with the cosmos; Hope Davis and Liev Schreiber as guests of the resort dependably seen near the vending machines for cocktails and real estate; Steve Carell as the motel manager; and Matt Dillon as the dreaded mechanic who always has bad news for the stranded.
I refuse to reveal one of the film’s best surprises, except to say it involves actor Jeff Goldblum hidden in plain sight.
And finally, the rockabilly vintage soundtrack scores Asteroid City perfectly for a road trip through humanity so enticing, you won’t want to miss a mile of it.