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‘Asteroid City’ Review: Wes Anderson’s Delightful Encounter with 1950s Stargazers, Actors, and a Quirky Alien

Asteroid City, the latest film by acclaimed director Wes Anderson, is a delightful and whimsical cinematic experience that takes viewers on a journey back to the 1950s.

Credit: Focus Features

Despite its beautiful aesthetic and moments of resonant storytelling, Wes Anderson’s latest film, “Asteroid City,” fails to fully come together narratively. The film follows familiar Anderson tropes, with eccentric characters, monotone dialogue, and precious props that define their identities. It features a layered plot revolving around a play within a TV show within the film, set in the fictional 1955 Asteroid City.

The story centers on Augie Stenbeck (played by Jason Schwartzman), a successful photojournalist and widower who embarks on a journey to Asteroid City with his 14-year-old son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and three younger daughters. Woodrow is part of a group of teenage stargazers attending a space convention, where they are being awarded for their achievements in exploration and inventions. Accompanying them are parents, teachers, and various townspeople involved in the event.

The cast of characters includes familiar and new faces in the Anderson universe, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Tom Hanks, Hope Davis, Steve Carell, Liev Schreiber, Jeffrey Wright, Rupert Friend, and Maya Hawke. However, the complexity of the story goes even deeper. It turns out that the entire narrative is a play, and all the characters are part of this theatrical production. Furthermore, Edward Norton appears as the playwright, Bryan Cranston as a narrator in a TV documentary about the playwright, and an alien visitation serves as a catalyst for emotional disturbances among the characters.

With a multitude of characters and intricate details, “Asteroid City” lacks a cohesive and urgent narrative. Different storylines emerge, such as Stenbeck’s grief, his complicated relationship with his father-in-law (Hanks), and his growing attraction to Johansson’s character, Midge Sinclair, a movie star. Norton’s playwright and his creative struggles form another narrative thread. While moments of brilliance shine through both the performances and the writing, they fail to come together as a complete story. Some storylines are resolved off-screen, while others remain unresolved. Just as the audience begins to invest in one thread, Anderson takes a detour into a completely separate tangent.

One particularly breathtaking diversion features Schwartzman’s character, Jones Hall, the actor playing Stenbeck, delivering a stunning audition to Norton’s playwright, leading to a deeper personal and professional connection between the two men. Both actors excel in their reactions and create a captivating moment. Schwartzman, in particular, elevates the film with his portrayal of the lead character.

Johansson adapts her performance to fit Anderson’s style, delivering a subtle and understated performance. Hawke and Friend enchant as a young couple, tentatively falling in love, relying on physicality to convey their emotions. In a smaller role, Adrien Brody delivers a funny and poignant portrayal of a tortured artist, while Hong Chau joins him in a melancholic scene that hints at untapped potential for a more significant subplot.

As expected from an Anderson production, the cinematography (Robert D. Yeoman), costumes (Milena Canonero), and production design (Adam Stockhausen) are impeccable. Each frame is meticulously crafted, creating a visually stunning tableau. Notably, the relationship between Stenbeck and Sinclair is portrayed through conversations held while they sit apart, each in their own room, talking to each other through their windows. The visual composition is striking, yet the constant distance between the characters reflects the film’s overall emotional detachment.

Wes Anderson’s ability to construct visually captivating worlds is unquestionable. However, in the case of “Asteroid City,” the film remains a beautiful artifact that lacks a cohesive narrative and ultimately proves to be easily forgettable, despite a few moments of resonant storytelling.

While “Asteroid City” may suffer from narrative fragmentation and emotional detachment, it still showcases Wes Anderson’s signature attention to detail and visual craftsmanship. Anderson’s collaborators on camera, costumes, and production design deliver impeccable work, creating fully realized worlds that captivate the eye. Each frame is a work of art, with meticulous composition and exquisite set designs that bring the fictional 1955 Asteroid City to life.

The film’s ensemble cast, both familiar and new to Anderson’s universe, deliver strong performances that elevate the material. Jason Schwartzman shines as Augie Stenbeck, capturing the character’s grief and inner conflicts with depth and nuance. Scarlett Johansson adapts to Anderson’s style, delivering a restrained yet compelling portrayal of Midge Sinclair, the movie star who becomes entangled in Stenbeck’s journey. Jake Ryan impresses as Woodrow, capturing the adolescent wonder and curiosity of a young stargazer. The ensemble is rounded out by a talented cast, each bringing their unique flair to their respective roles.

Despite the fragmented narrative, there are moments of brilliance that resonate. The scene featuring Schwartzman’s Jones Hall auditioning for Edward Norton’s playwright is a standout, showcasing the chemistry between the two actors and the emotional depth they bring to the scene. The visual storytelling between Maya Hawke and Rupert Friend, as the young couple falling in love, is evocative and powerful, conveying a range of emotions through subtle gestures and expressions.

It is worth noting that the film’s structure, with its play within a TV show within a film concept, may intentionally create a sense of detachment. Anderson may be exploring the boundaries between reality and fiction, blurring the lines to provoke thought and introspection. However, this artistic choice, while intriguing, may contribute to the film’s lack of narrative cohesiveness.

In the end, “Asteroid City” stands as a visually stunning and intricately crafted film that showcases Wes Anderson’s unique style and attention to detail. While it may not fully come together as a complete and emotionally resonant story, it still offers glimpses of brilliance and showcases the talents of its ensemble cast. As with any artist’s work, familiarity can be a double-edged sword, and while “Asteroid City” may not reach the heights of Anderson’s previous works, it remains a visually captivating experience that will leave audiences with plenty to admire and discuss.

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