'Asteroid City' Review: Scarlett Johansson Leads Stacked Ensemble That Gets Abandoned In Cloying Wes Anderson Whimsy

‘Asteroid City’ Review: Scarlett Johansson Leads Stacked Ensemble That Gets Abandoned In Cloying Wes Anderson Whimsy

With apologies to Guns N’ Roses: don’t take me down to the City of Asteroids / Where the tropes are jaded and the gags aren’t witty / Make it stop (Oh please make it stop).

To clarify an important point up front, I’m not a Wes Anderson hater. I understand that he is the most capable of parodying among contemporary American filmmakers, with his taste for carefully designed retro-theatrical devices, for narrative boxes within boxes, for choices of framing and camera movement identifiable at a mile away, characters dripping with antics and plots that fearlessly immerse themselves in Mannerist preciousness. But when all the elements click into place, Anderson’s curated worlds can be enchanting places to visit. Or they may be suffocating constructs that take all the charm out of his characteristic storytelling style. Which brings us to City of Asteroids.

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City of Asteroids

The bottom line

Exuberant and maddening unequal parts.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Release date: Friday 23 June
Launch: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie
Director-writer: Wes Anderson

Rated PG-13, 1 hour 44 minutes

Premiering in Cannes’ main competition ahead of its June 23 release on Focus, the wickedly cute new film joins the ranks of Anderson’s more detached work, notably Limited Darjeeling AND Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

The writer-director rarely looks more pleased with himself than when he’s spinning the reels. Anderson has always been like a smart kid playing in a hermetically sealed sandbox of bizarre action figures and bizarre toys. Here, he is literally like that as he locks up a group of people in 1955 in a fictional small desert town in the American Southwest with a population of 87, isolating them there after an alien encounter prompts the government to step in and enforce quarantine. military.

Central to all the excitement is a precociously brilliant group of young teenagers accompanied by their parents to a Junior Stargazers convention, where they will be honored for their outlandish scientific inventions at a ceremony to be held in the basin of a massive meteor crater. .

Cast Tilda Swinton as an eccentric astronomer who bestows an annual scholarship on a lucky space cadet, and what could be more Anderson-esque, right? In theory yes, but it’s hard to interact with characters and situations that seem so studied, so locked into a script that it rarely allows for any emotional development, especially when the director himself seems so far removed from them.

The main exceptions are Augie Steinbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a recently widowed war photographer, and Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a movie star who has a history with violent men. In the exchanges neatly framed by the front windows of their bungalows at the Motor Court Motel, a fleeting but intense romantic bond develops. At the same time, a young love blossoms between their respective children, Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and Dinah (Grace Edwards).

Schwartzman and Johansson star in the film, bringing an element of yearning and hidden pain to their characters. But whenever their thread threatens to acquire substance, Anderson breaks off on some pointless vignette or some nitpicking deal that makes the entire gallery of overcrowded characters seem remote.

Much of that is the overly complicated framing device, a black and white cottage 90television-type showcase presented by an unnamed host (Bryan Cranston), who presents City of Asteroids as a play by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), directed by Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) and cast with a handpicked ensemble from the Saltzburg theater collective Keitel (Willem Dafoe). The program is a behind-the-scenes tour of the creative process of assembling a play for the stage, and the key characters involved all draw loose inspiration from mid-century artists and institutions, such as the Actors Studio.

That means we also get mostly unrevealing glimpses of the performers playing roles on the desert TV show. And it allows production designer Adam Stockhausen to get creative with painted backdrops of cactus-dotted plains and rocky plateaus and mountains likely made of Styrofoam. But this supposedly lighthearted comedy with heart exposes the gulf between clever and funny.

Despite a deep period selection of quirky country tunes and jaunty skiffle songs about train journeys – an old railway runs through the city, along with intermittent police cars chasing random criminals – the film mostly sits there, never really accumulating much life.

The point of the story – written by Anderson from an idea he developed with Roman Coppola – is that human connection, enlightenment and healing are possible even in an atmosphere of deeply ingrained paranoia and in the mushroom-shaped shadow of the atomic tests. But the notes of emotion struggle to break through.

City of Asteroids made me long for the beautiful sadness that plagues family messed up in The Royal Royal Tenenbaumsthe teenage growing pains of rushmorenostalgia for the adventurous spirit of childhood in Kingdom of the moonrise or the haunting tragicomedy of The Grand Hotel Budapest, a film so layered that it almost defies a single viewing. Anderson’s latest seems at times indistinguishable from the fan edits and AI-generated parodies of his work that have popped up on TikTok and Twitter.

Among the least exploited performers is Hong Chau, who was given only one scene in which his wife abandons Brody’s serial womanizer, not without regrets; and Margot Robbie as the melancholy actress whose scene of Augie’s dead wife was cut from the play. She has a wistful exchange with Jones Hall, the actor who plays Augie, from nearby Broadway theaters. Beyond an alleged fondness for the director’s work, it’s mystifying what drew Tom Hanks to the throwaway role of Augie’s disapproving father-in-law, negotiating a steady place in his grandchildren’s lives while remaining open about his dislike for their father. .

Few people stuck all the time in Asteroid City, the place, have much to do. This includes the stargazer parents played by Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis and Stephen Park; Steve Carell as the motel manager selling mini-parcels of desert real estate; Maya Hawke as a teacher dedicated to supervising a busload of children; Rupert Friend as the troubadour cowboy who sweetly woos her; Matt Dillon as a local auto mechanic; and Jeffrey Wright as the decorated general who hosts the stellar astronomer convention and later oversees the military blockade when one of the young brainiacs publishes a scoop in the school paper about the alien visitation.

This latest development involves Jeff Goldblum inhabiting the movement of a slender stop-motion extraterrestrial, perhaps meant to suggest the infinite possibilities of a universe too often viewed with fear. But the presence, amusing as it is, isn’t much more significant than Goldblum’s interplanetary visitor Earth girls are easy going.

As always with Anderson, the handcrafted elements are impeccable, including Stockhausen’s playfully mock sets, Milena Canonero’s geek-chic vintage costumes, and Robert Yeoman’s cinematography, drenched in the dazzling colors of Kodak 35mm film and enlivened with loads of features whips, artistic symmetrical shots and split-screen interludes. It should also be said that each actor commits 100 percent to the director’s vision, like strange figurines in a world of miniature toys.

The problem is, there’s not enough here to fully engage the viewer beyond the brand’s aesthetic: no lingering emotional pulls or feelings, and too few genuine laughs. For such a curiously weightless film he seems terribly pleased with himself, his moments of magic evaporating almost instantly.