Asteroid City (2023)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 7/1/23
Written And Directed By: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jake Ryan, Grace Edwards, Maya Hawke, Rupert Friend, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Tilda Swinton, cameos by Matt Dillon, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Margot Robbie

"You can't wake up if you don't fall asleep."

Asteroid City is a small roadside attraction built next to a large impact crater near the California/Nevada border. It's hosting an event for the Junior Stargazer's Club, and also attracts a bus full of students as well as a travelling country band. Unfortunately, the area is quarantined when a visitor from outer space pays a brief visit, which forces all of the characters to come to grips with their new reality. But that reality is just the brainchild of a struggling playwright, while the cast (and audience) questions what it's all about.

It's a charming and visually dazzling film, but impenetrably weird and confusing. The dusty pastel palette and Atomic Age kitsch are wonderful and perfectly capture the look and feel of Southwest Americana. The characters are delightfully quirky and the actors are superb. The majority of the film focuses on the interplay between a war photographer and recent widower named Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), and Hollywood actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Both characters are tragically broken, and Midge is the perfect poison for Augie's world-weary cynicism and grief. Schwartzman is excellent and Johansson is a stunning presence who effortlessly shines throughout. Maya Hawke also gives a wonderful performance as an exasperated schoolmarm desperately trying to wrangle a bunch of rambunctious children.

The film itself is tender and bittersweet, and while there's a constant undercurrent of sadness, fear, and loss, there's never any sense of danger or dread (other than the existential kind). More than anything, the characters seem trapped in a state of perpetual melancholy and malaise. Unfortunately, the "play within a play" framing device simply doesn't work, and constantly shatters the sense of immersion. Every time I became interested in what was happening, the film would shift back to "the real world" and totally tear down what was built before, destroying any chance to connect with the characters and setting. Director Wes Anderson's intentions were completely lost on me, and the narrative shifts left me frustrated, alienated, and confused. Schwartzman's character feels this too, and perhaps the answer lies in the play's director (Adrien Brody) when he says, "It doesn't matter. Just keep telling the story."