Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’ Is as much Theme Park as Movie

With eye candy to beat the band, the auteur hits on all cylinders—except emotion. 


Wes Anderson is a uniqueness, and we should be thankful he exists. But what is he? With each film, he’s doubled down on his particular battery of obsessive ideas (the chockablock dioramas, the loopy yarn-spinning, the deadpan quasi-farce, the overwhelming retro design), so that after a quarter-century of filmmaking, The French Dispatch (2021) was so intensely Wes-y, with more twitches and textual jokes than anyone could assimilate in one viewing, it felt almost like an experimental film. You have to salute his sui-generis-ness, his cultural curiosity, his subject-matter wanderlust, his distinctive visual craft, his attention to detail (often it feels like his films are all detail), and, honestly, his capacity for indexing some kind of late-Millennial/Gen Z toybox nostalgia, the hermetic pleasure of which, for his legion of devotees, should not be underestimated.

If you fight in that pajama-clad army, you don’t ask questions, you just go. His newest confabulation, Asteroid City, is Wes-ness ascending — plastered with invention and pop-ironic formal beauty, and quirk-inhabited within an inch of its life. Anderson has made hay of Manhattan, India, New England camping grounds, Japanese islands, and Alpine hotels; now he hits the southern American desert in the idealized ’50s, and with more than a whiff of Wile E. Coyote. The narrative is all set-up, and the set-up is characteristically arch: During the age of apparently ceaseless nuclear testing, a plethora of characters converge on the titular desert burg for the annual Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention, including a widowed war photog (Jason Schwartzman) and his “brainiac” son (Jake Ryan), plus three tiny triplet daughters, a famous actress (Scarlett Johansson) and her genius daughter (Grace Edwards), a fresh-faced teacher (Maya Hawke) with a precocious fifth-grade class in tow, a cowboy band (led by Rupert Friend), et cetera. 


Every shot is an irradiated postcard from a sun-scorched pastel past.


Already in Asteroid City are an administrative general (Jeffrey Wright), a geeky astrophysicist (Tilda Swinton), a store-owner entrepreneur (Steve Carell) who’s selling tiny plots of land through a vending machine, a hands-on but clueless mechanic (Matt Dillon), and, you get the idea. (I’d be surprised if there weren’t several Acme products in there somewhere, which I’m not surprised I missed.) The cast has over 30 featured speaking parts and at least 10 through lines — including the framing story, presented as a ’50s TV show, hosted by period-TV host Bryan Cranston, about the writing and performing of the play Asteroid City, involving a brooding playwright (Edward Norton), a headlong director (Adrien Brody), an impassioned acting teacher (Willem Dafoe), and even the actress who plays Schwartzman’s dead wife in Asteroid City (the play) via a single photograph (Margot Robbie).

Eventually, an alien shows up. (C’mon, as if a Wes movie could have a spoiler). Tom Hanks shows up, too, as the can-do wealthy granddad of Schwartzman’s motherless kids. The priority, though, as you will have assumed, is not the movie’s people but its stunning formal ravishment, filled with gleaming ’50s modernisms set against luridly painted desert mesas and blazing teal skies, every shot an irradiated postcard from a sun-scorched pastel past, or an imaginary travel ad painted by the late Bruce McCall. Anderson structures his action around this design, horizontally, with whole scenes, and much of the comedy, captured in wide-screen swivels and stretch pans that often loop a complete 360 degrees. Some shots suggest a Lego formality, others recall late ’60s Godard. As an eye assault, it’s a thing of wonder.


Anderson’s films are the only films anyone’s ever made that speak to us with the pleasure of a meticulous model-train layout — complete with perfectly lettered signage, however jokey.


But where we are in the film, as in all of Anderson’s, is more important than what happens — I kept thinking during Asteroid City that he didn’t want to make a movie so much as build a theme park. (I’d go, and so would you.) By the end of the film, you could practically draw a map of the place, outline it in chalk like the invisible town in Lars von Trier’s Dogville. The deft comic rhythms and the robust cast’s skill keep the narratives flowing, but, as usual, the humans are overshadowed by the macro-scheme of the piece. Nobody wants to slam Anderson — it’d be like scolding a 6-year-old for crafting a dangerously elaborate dining-room-table city out of cookware. But there’s always something missing. The redoubtable ocular pleasure to be pulled from his movies is the pleasure of the collector, the OCD hoarder in all of us, the pleasure of putting things in neat boxes or shelving books precisely or rearranging your stamp collection in an illogical way that makes secret emotional sense. Anderson’s films are the only films anyone’s ever made that speak to us with the pleasure of a meticulous model-train layout — complete with perfectly lettered signage, however jokey. The problem is, that pleasure is more than a little neurotic, and it’s all there is.

Asteroid City is brimming with an ironic-Americana beauty, but it never asks to be taken seriously. Should we try to, now that he’s a brand-name auteur? For Wes-ites, his inspired terrarium aesthetic is more than enough, an elaborate daydream permission slip to regress to a pre-adolescent landscape. Yet it’s common, for this Boomer, among many others I’ve talked to, to want more — to want all of the invention to matter, to have resonance. And it rarely does. There’s always a daunting wealth of ingenuity and wit and vision, but no passion, and only a child’s sense of human reality. I once had a student who, being on the autism spectrum, opined that Anderson’s films, with their regularized lack of modulation and love of symmetry and distance, and studied emotional coolness, are at least works that reflect the spectrum’s worldview. No one’s diagnosing anybody, but this may be a clarifying way to think of Anderson’s films, and why, for all of their dazzlement and brain power, they often fail to connect in ways that far dumber, far plainer films often can. We could call Wes a Spectrumist, the only Spectrumist, and take or leave his mini-worlds on those terms. 

Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.


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