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Asteroid City review- Dazzling and drab in equal measure

Wes Anderson’s new film is a predictably gorgeous exercise in navel-gazing

3/5rating
Asteroid City review- Dazzling and drab in equal measure

Last Updated: 10.54 AM, Aug 25, 2023

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Story: The film has a nested-doll structure, shifting between the events of a 1950s-set play on an American desert town, and snippet-like glimpses into the actors essaying the play’s characters, providing a portrait of authorial construction and performance.

Review: Wes Anderson’s new film is expectedly populated with eccentricities and all of his distinguishing filmmaking features are present. The actors deliver their lines with muted emotion, often in an impeccably stylised diction. There are child prodigies and inter-generational conflicts situated within contexts of grief, mourning, forgiving and the struggles in letting go. There is the usual affectedness of performance inflected with bursts of profound realisation. But much like with his previous film, The French Dispatch, this one too has an extreme degree of order and punctiliousness in its arrangements that ultimately border on the stiffly bland. One may argue that this is after all an auteur exercising his supreme command in orchestrating and controlling his highly familiar, synthetic worlds with complete immersion. However, Asteroid City continually feels like Anderson is pushing his beloved characteristic elements into a neatness that is more repressive than enchanting.

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This is a film that draws attention to its construction; its playful meta-ness and self-reflexivity inform the design to its delight. There are several narrative layers that keep crisscrossing, producing effects alternating between dazzling and disorienting. The frame-narrative mode of storytelling has a narrator played by Bryan Cranston giving the lowdown on the televised production and making of a 1950s-set play. Early in these behind-the-scenes sections, unspooling in monochrome, there is a pronounced insistence on the “apocryphal fabrication” lying beneath the nature of the events we are about to witness. An elaborate instructive mise-en-scene by the playwright, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), is followed by a direct leap into the play’s action itself. But the membranes between the fictional world and the external authorial making remain consistently permeable. At one point, the narrator awkwardly excuses himself after he has found himself side-stepping into the world of the dramatic action, that unfolds in a small, sparsely populated town on a desert strip. We enter this tightly contained world of the eponymous town, hermetically sealed off. There is a luncheonette, an observatory and the precocious kids have lined up for the junior stargazer convention, where they will demonstrate their inventions while running for a scholarship. The convention is under the aegis of the American military while Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) presides over the scientific experimentations.

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Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer, has arrived at this town with his ‘brainiac’ son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and three daughters, while quietly grieving the recent death of his wife. Augie strikes a tentative relationship with Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), an actress, visiting with her daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards). As a subtle romance unfurls between the shy Woodrow and the confidently assertive Dinah, Augie finds an anchorage in Midge, who is also grappling with a deeply buried ache. At one point, Midge remarks that it is their tendency of not to express the depth of their pain that has drawn them, both tormented, anguished souls, to each other. As Midge and Augie confide in each other through a consciously underlined coating of performance, with the actors bringing forth their preparation and personal lives and pouring it into their characters, the film’s strains of subdued wistfulness work beautifully. Anderson is interested in the sliver of connection that two unlikely souls can discover in each other; that thread is tender and tenuous and for a brief while is both self-sustaining and an instrument of expanding oneself. Art becomes a conduit for facilitating personal self-discovery, awakening to acknowledge and embrace one’s fears and failings.

The screenplay, which Anderson has co-written with Roman Coppola, has a reach that extends from the intimate to the cosmic. The stargazers and their parents assemble to witness the unique phenomenon of the astronomical ellipsis when there is an unexpected visitor. With an enveloping green glow, this sequence is show-stoppingly designed, both bizarre and amusing. To reveal more would be a spoiler, but this visitor’s strange intervention initiates an almost metaphysical rupture in the characters and their interpersonal relationships, sparking long-deferred realisations. There are cheeky bits like the actors admitting they cannot quite fathom what the text seems to be saying, and the director reassuring them that it does not matter; we just must keep telling the tale.

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The cast is sprawling, each endowed with individual kookiness but the various tracks, including even one exploring the play’s actors and director in relation to the text and its performance, feel stubbornly isolated, like decorative artefacts kept at a tasteful remove from each other, despite the intended fluidity. This is an exquisite-looking film, with Anderson’s regulars, DP Robert Yeoman and production designer Adam Stockhausen, meticulously shaping each of the film’s dizzyingly detailed facets, rendering a profusion of saturated pastels. But these cannot disguise the film’s eventually plodding, inert rhythm. After a point, the characters start getting curiously pigeonholed into a mere assemblage of strikingly composed moments that cannot shake off their sheer manufactured-ness. All the constant chatter including lines and questions like, “Are we all doomed” undeniably sounds hollow.

Verdict: Only Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson manage to lend the film a throbbing heart, a semblance of some bruised, human edges. Otherwise, Asteroid City trades tiringly in the eclectic, veering dangerously close to lifelessness. Anderson is clearly aiming to find sublimity in the authentically artificial, but here, he cannot surpass the fragmentariness of the many conceits, both visual and symbolic, that he has stuffed his film with.

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