Asteroid City Comedy

Review: ‘Asteroid City’ Treads the Line Between Melancholy Masterpiece and Self-Deprecating Parody

June 20, 2023Ben MK

With just under a dozen feature films to his credit, Wes Anderson may not be one of Hollywood's most prolific filmmakers, but he's certainly one of its most divisive. Whether it's the stop-motion antics of Fantastic Mr. Fox or the family drama of The Royal Tenenbaums, Anderson's brand of idiosyncratic humor and unmistakable aesthetic have divided both moviegoers and critics alike for the last three decades. And when it comes to his latest, Asteroid City, the case is no different, as the 54-year-old writer/director assembles yet another spellbinding group of A-list players to tell a tale about grief and the pursuit of artistic authenticity, all set against the backdrop of the Arizona desert.

Set over the course of one week in 1955, the story follows Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) a widowed war photographer who can't bring himself to tell his teenage son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and three young daughters (Ella Faros, Gracie Faris and Willan Faris) that their mother (Margot Robbie) passed away some three weeks earlier. Instead, Augie has taken his four children on a road trip to Asteroid City, a small town with a meagre population of 87 and the designated location of choice for a small gathering of Junior Stargazers. The site of a meteorite crash some 5000 years prior, Asteroid City proves to be the perfect place for Woodrow and his fellow space enthusiasts to convene under the guidance of prominent astrophysicist Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton). What none of them ever expected, however, is for their relatively inauspicious ceremony to interrupted by something significantly more monumental, as they're visited by an unannounced guest of extraterrestrial origin.

As a result of this close encounter, the entire town is placed under immediate quarantine by the President of the United States, who tasks hard-nosed US Army General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) with overseeing the lockdown. And with nowhere else to go and nothing else to do but wait, Woodrow and the other socially awkward child geniuses in his company (Grace Edwards, Aristou Meehan, Sophia Lillis and Ethan Josh Lee) inevitably find themselves speculating about the alien's motivations and plotting to overthrow their military captors. Meanwhile, Augie's well-to-do father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks), has also come to Asteroid City, in the hopes of convincing his son-in-law to return home with his beloved grandchildren. Much to his surprise, however, he discovers that Augie has become infatuated with the woman in the motel room across from his, Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), who also happens to be the mother of one of Woodrow's friends and a famous Hollywood actress.

As anyone with a modicum of familiarity with Anderson's movies might imagine, this marks merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to Asteroid City's colorful cast of quirky characters. From the motel's manager (Steve Carell), who has a vending machine for selling practically anything one can conceive of, to Catholic schoolteacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke), who has brought her class of impressionable young grade-schoolers to Asteroid City to sightsee, there’s no shortage of offbeat narrative tangents to distract viewers from the film's central drama. Perhaps the most interesting tangent of all, though, is Anderson's decision to frame the entire plot as a stage play written by a renowned playwright named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), whose story is told via a black-and-white, behind-the-scenes television program narrated by a deadpan host (Bryan Cranston).

Depending on who you talk to, the result can either be interpreted as one of Anderson's most acclaim-worthy masterpieces or a parody of what his movies have come to represent to modern-day pop culture as a whole. Still, no matter how you slice it, there's no denying the fact that Asteroid City feels like the ultimate embodiment of what a Wes Anderson film should be. Gorgeously shot and bolstered by a supremely watchable ensemble cast, it's a must-see for aficionados of melancholy melodramas. Others, however, might be left feeling alienated.

Asteroid City releases June 23rd, 2023 from Focus Features. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for brief graphic nudity, smoking and some suggestive material. Its runtime is 1 hr. 44 min.

You May Also Like