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  • Benjamin May

Asteroid City (2023) Review

It is hard to think of a movie as underwhelming or as twee as Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City,’ a meandering, grandiose comic-drama that is overlong and overindulgent. As it begins, we are told the film is in fact a televised production of a play by a fellow named Conrad Earp, which follows a ragtag bunch of misfits who gather on the isolated titular town to partake in a science convention. Among them is recent widower and war photojournalist Augie Steenbeck, who hits it off with noted actress Midge Campbell. Meanwhile, the actor playing Augie has doubts about his performance, and fears he doesn’t understand the play.

A fear shared by this viewer. ‘Asteroid City’ is a film packed to the rafters with nothing of note. Firstly, the narrative is overloaded with unnecessary stylizations that distract rather than engage. The switching back and forth between the play and the show about it is jarring throughout, while the overarching structure is alienating. It is difficult to immerse oneself in the world of the film as one is constantly reminded it is fiction. Similarly, it is no easy task connecting with the characters when the film they’re in keeps telling us that they and their conflicts are imaginary.

Additionally, Anderson doesn’t fully explore any of the innumerable story threads he begins to unravel, nor does he properly develop his themes, whether they be about reality and fiction, the role of science and technology or the search for identity and belonging. He introduces thematic ideas in a superficial and inconsistent way, without giving them enough depth or resolution. This makes the film feel unfocused and incomplete, as it leaves the viewer with many questions and loose ends.

For instance, he introduces the idea of a nuclear war looming over Asteroid City, but doesn’t explore its implications or consequences for the characters or the world. He also introduces the character of Conrad Earp, the playwright behind it all, but never explains his motivations or his relationship with the actors or the audience. Moreover, he fails to conclude any of the various subplots in a meaningful or coherent way, seeming to prefer endlessly switching between different levels of artifice in a vacuum of self-satisfaction.

Furthermore, the characters are all Anderson stereotypes dialled up to the max. We’ve seen the quirky neurotic Steenbeck before in projects like ‘Rushmore’ and ‘Darjeeling Limited’, while Campbell is essentially just Margot Tenenbaum with better hair, or any number of the beautiful, aloof ladies Anderson has given the world over the years. Each and all eccentric and mannered, the people that populate ‘Asteroid City’ feel like they were created by artificial intelligence trying to emulate Anderson’s earlier, better movies.

Likewise, the dialogue is your typical Anderson fare, full of cutesy phrases and obscure references that’ll make grey-haired hipsters chuckle; though is a different breed from the likes of, say, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel.’ For all its faults, that film had plenty of rapid-pace witticisms and verbal sparring matches, which ‘Asteroid City’ has a dearth of. The dialogue is largely uninspired and inane, when it isn’t contrived and artificial, as it is whenever Steenbeck’s son has to converse with anyone, or when Steenbeck and Campbell share their woes through their windows.

Narratively, ‘Asteroid City’ isolates and irritates, while Robert Yeoman’s striking cinematography is cartoonish and extravagant. Yeoman makes use of bright colours, symmetrical compositions and retro-futuristic props and costumes to create a distinctive, whimsical aesthetic that reflects Anderson’s trademark visual style. The attention to detail on display is laudable, while the intricacy of the sets and staging is staggering. However, Yeoman’s work also contributes to the tacky artificiality and lack of subtlety of proceedings, meaning that, instead of enhancing the mood or meaning of the film, his exaggerated stylizations serve only to distract. Additionally, the score—a jumbled mixture of 50’s country songs and synthetic pop- is as forgettable and bland as saltless porridge.

Though Anderson has assembled a truly awesome all-star cast, nobody is giving anything particularly interesting or challenging to do. Though Jason Schwartzman does strong work as the quirky, self-absorbed neurotic Augie Steenbeck, it’s a role he’s played dozens of times before in better projects and to greater effect. Similarly, Scarlett Johansson impresses as the austere Midge Campbell, showing her vulnerability in a way most nuanced and affecting; though is underutilised and ultimately reduced to a mere plot device.

Additionally, Bryan Cranston does a half-decent Rod Serling impression as the narrator of the piece and Tom Hanks brings pathos and power to his all too small role as Steenbeck’s father-in-law, though both characters are woefully one-dimensional. Also worthy of note is Jeffrey Wright, who’s consistently amusing as a caricature of an army general, and Tilda Swinton, who engages in more of the jittery over-acting that has endeared her to so many. The rest of the cavalcade of stars are generally commendable, but have little to do in the face of Anderson’s scant characterisation and underwhelming narrative.

In conclusion, ‘Asteroid City,’ like ‘The French Dispatch’ before it, is very much a case of style over substance. Anderson’s best films- perhaps tellingly all written alongside Owen Wilson- have heart and soul to match their kooky characters and painstakingly intricate visuals. ‘Asteroid City’ is a heartless, soulless exercise in pretension; a meandering mess of a motion picture. Though it boasts some fine performances, there’s very little on offer in ‘Asteroid City;’ and its certainly not a place you’d want to call home.


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