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‘Asteroid City’: A meteoric work

| Friday, September 1, 2023

Maria Tobias | The Observer

As last semester came to a close, I noticed a trend in the videos my friends sent me. Across TikTok and Instagram, there were videos turning events into “Wes Anderson movies.” For those unfamiliar with the artist’s films, these videos would certainly give an impression of Anderson’s stylistic choices. These videos captured Anderson’s unique cinematography and framing. But beyond what these videos could quickly demonstrate, what makes a Wes Anderson film? Like most artists, Anderson’s style and techniques have changed over his career, but the fundamentals typically boil down to deadpan humor, a star-studded cast and a stylistic flatness in the film’s space. Anderson has carved out his own distinctive directorial and written style that cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. His most recent film, “Asteroid City,” is the most Wes Anderson-esque film yet.

It’s not particularly easy to explain this film. There’s a frame story about a television show discussing playwriting, with these events presented in black and white. In color, we see the events of the play performed for the television program. However, as the film makes clear at the start, this play is not real and solely exists for the creation of the television program. When shown in color, the characters act out the events of the fictional play set in the titular Asteroid City. In black and white, the characters are actors seeking to understand the art they’ve been given. During specific moments of the movie, the film’s complexity is obvious: Actors play actors for this television program where they portray actors for a stage play that does not exist. 

The film’s cast, a wide and varied ensemble of actors, manage to make this convoluted premise comprehensible. As in many of Anderson’s recent films, he features a mix of megastars alongside stalwarts in Anderson’s past films, such as Jason Schwartzman, whose acting debut was in Anderson’s “Rushmore,” and Tony Revolori, whose breakout role was in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe have featured in multiple projects of the director and have short but memorable presences in the picture. Beyond these expected faces, the film features many notable and beloved actors: Scarlett Johansson portrays a melancholy actress, Tom Hanks plays a man grieving the loss of his daughter and Margot Robbie features in a small but pivotal role. In a film with such a large cast, it poses a challenge for any actor to stand out, but the stars of “Asteroid City” do not suffer from this. Even the charming group of young astronomers (Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, Aristou Meehan, Ethan Josh Lee and Sophia Lillis) all hold their ground alongside their more established co-stars.

Actors wouldn’t be able to perform these roles without an author to script them, though. Written by Anderson and frequent collaborator Roman Coppola, the script is as dry, funny and thought-provoking as usual. I’ve gone in depth on the film’s story already, but Anderson’s dialogue deserves praise solely for the way it can stick with you despite the direction constantly calling for deadpan delivery. Some of the film’s final scenes present the script’s best lines, with a clear stand-out being the haunting, “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”

Taste, ultimately, is subjective. Nothing can prove that more than Wes Anderson movies. His movies are ones that I greatly enjoy, and “Asteroid City” is now among my favorites. However, I understand how some might view them as odd, confusing or even self-indulgent. Because, in all honesty, they are. If you, as an audience member, do not like Wes Anderson films, this is not the movie that will change your mind. But if you enjoy his films, or wish to understand his films further, I feel that there is nothing that demonstrates what makes a Wes Anderson film “his” more so than “Asteroid City.”

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