Wes Anderson has done it all: India by train, Rhode Island by foot, the Mediterranean by sub, France by bike, faux-Germany by hotel, apple-orchard America by fox, animated Japan by dog, motel Texas by friends, New York City by family. But––despite the feeling that this couldn’t possibly be true––he’s never told a story in western America. In setting he hasn’t gone further west than Houston (which is, of course, the south). Until Asteroid City: Arizona desert by quarantine.
Anderson’s 11th feature opens by railroad. Knowing the story will soon be confined in an all-too-familiar state of lockdown, however, longtime DP Robert Yeoman uses the arrival to the tiny fictional town to capture and set the terrain. We’re yanked at high speed through a flurry of landscape shots framed through every angle under the sun on the mustard-yellow train and set to the jittery “Last Train to San Fernando” by Johnny Duncan & His Bluegrass Boys.
The color is somehow both soothing and electrifying––the milkiest of pastels with a Mesa turquoise gauze over it all. The sky is a piercing aqua blue, the jagged plateaus bastions of red rock around the saloon-sized town in an otherwise vast, sparsely cacti-dotted desert with the occasional perfect mushroom plume of nuclear testing visible in the distance. I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that there’s a giant hole in the ground where a meteor once struck.
Thanks to production designer Adam Stockhausen, Asteroid City itself––all of which can be seen in a 360 turn of the camera, per Anderson’s clever, dynamic single-shot introduction––is a design marvel, variegated colors and flourishes as intricate as the eye can see, a blend of Americana, bohemian western flare, and that cheeky, glamorous beach resort aesthetic that courses through Anderson’s veins. With a population of only 87, it might be the best-dressed place per capita in the world, Milena Canonero’s costumes a ready-to-wear fast fashion line that would sell out overnight if it ever hit shelves.
But I lied. Asteroid City doesn’t begin in color. There’s a prologue, and it’s important. The film begins in black-and-white, in a more square aspect ratio, in 1995 with a monologue from a TV host played by Bryan Cranston. He informs us that “Asteroid City does not exist. It is an imaginary drama created expressly for the purposes of this broadcast. The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication.” Thus begins the dizzying story mechanics, which felt at first like an obstacle but transformed over the 104-minute runtime into a meta-treat (and, on second watch, will certainly feel more stable).
The color, aspect ratio, and narrative often dip back into New York City––a device from The French Dispatch he seems to like, switching between worlds via style––where, in black-and-white, the titan director played by Adrien Brody, the lauded playwright played by Edward Norton, and the actors themselves take time to consider the work and the characters in the context of their lives. And then back again, into the alien-wrought, government-suffocated, romance-laden cosmos of the play, where a three-day celebration around a Junior Stargazer convention is at the center of various subplots.
Our lead in the film (read: the play within the broadcast within the film) is Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer and widowed father of four who’s yet to tell his children their mom died weeks ago. They find themselves stranded when their car breaks down in the quarter-mile of a stretch that is “Asteroid City” during the Junior Stargazer Convention, a three-day celebration in which an anal scientist version of Tilda Swinton plays a major role.
The trusty town mechanic (a very funny Matt Dillon) can’t fix the car, so Augie must call his disapproving father-in-law (Tom Hanks) for help. While in town, he develops a love interest in Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johannson), a mother and star actress conveniently situated across the window from him, where she rehearses her sides with a sense of melodramatic immersion with her window open, often only in a robe (if that).
Hanks, Dillon, and Johannson are just a few of the stars we see on screen in a Wes Anderson film for the first time (a bit of a misnomer for Johannson, though, who voiced one of the dogs in Isle of Dogs), and they shine, like most do when they start working with the director. Hong Chau and Sophia Lillis get good marks, too. But the Best Anderson Newcomer Award by a landslide goes to Steve Carrell, whose dry, succinct delivery is so perfect for the director’s style, I can’t help going back and wondering who he could’ve played in the past ten. Almost all of his lines got a laugh.
Par for the course with Wes––and one of the things that continues to earn him his place among the best and hardest filmmakers working––Asteroid City has fresh, titillating tricks. That’s not to say Anderson’s tricks are necessarily new to cinema, but when he’s wielding a new tool it often feels that way. Some are visual (e.g. incredibly affecting use of dueling screens during a phone call) and some are more conceptual––like the real estate vending machine in town (“For $10 in quarters, approximately half a tennis court”). Newness aside, he also manages to get in some of his old favorites, stop-motion animation, dollying cubby shots, and all.
A sultry, creamy western that feels more like a vacation, Asteroid City is an absolute delight, Anderson’s best since The Grand Budapest Hotel. It practically begs you to sit back, relax, and enjoy yourself. Hell, it might even want you to take a nap, but not for lack of entertainment. As the characters of Asteroid City know all too well, “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.” Remember that.
Asteroid City premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will be released on June 16.