Thursday, November 16, 2023

Layers Upon Layers

Film: Asteroid City
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I watched Asteroid City last night, and it left me in something of a quandary. Typically when I watch something that I know will appear on this blog in one form or another, I review it immediately so that I am addressing the thoughts I have while it is all still fresh in my memory. I couldn’t really do that with Asteroid City because I wasn’t sure of what I thought about it or how I thought about it. Even now, more than 12 hours after watching, I’m still trying to make sense of it.

Wes Anderson has always been the twee-est of twee directors, and that’s not going to change with this one. All of his characters, as always, are defined by their quirks. Asteroid City gives us a constellation of people, many of whom are recognizable, legitimate stars who appear in this for a scene or two and say a line or two before vanishing. Jeff Goldblum, Margot Robbie, Hong Chau, Bob Balaban, Willem Dafoe, and others show up for a scene or two and then never really appear again. All of this is in service of a story that is about the creation of the story that we are watching—we’re looking at (essentially) a fictional documentary about the creation of a stage play and the actors who put on that play, and we are watching both the stage play as if it were the main story (which it is) and the actors behind the scenes. It’s multiple levels of meta.

Essentially, Asteroid City is a play written by a man named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). While this “documentary” is about the creation of the play and narrated by Bryan Cranston, most of what we see is actually the play itself. The play concerns a group of young people brought out to a tiny desert town where they are being rewarded for science fiction-like advances in technology—ray guns, jet packs, and the like. This coincides with an astronomical event that everyone will watch while sitting in a meteor crater. When the event happens, an alien spacecraft lands, steals the meteor, and flies away, leaving the people wondering what happened and in the middle of a government lockdown to prevent the news from leaking. Of course, the kids are science geniuses and figure out how to get the word out, something compounded by the presence of Augie Steenback (Jason Schwartzman), noted war photographer. Augie snapped a pic of the alien and sent it out, along with a candid nude of fellow attendee actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson).

It would take the rest of this review to name all of the people involved in this and all of their roles. In addition to the people mentioned above, the film has roles for many Wes Anderson staple players like Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, and Tony Revolori. Also here are Tom Hanks, Steve Carrell, Matt Dillon, Maya Hawke, and Rupert Friend. Music fans will want to look for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Jarvis Cocker of the band Pulp.

Ultimately, I guess I don’t understand the additional layer of storytelling here. I don’t care about the story behind the creation of the play that Asteroid City is actually about. The play itself—the people trapped under government lockdown and dealing with the realization that there are aliens in the universe who might be exactly as weird as most of humanity—is more than enough to carry the movie. Having it be about the people who were in the play on stage feels unnecessary and, frankly, pointless.

What it really feels like for me is that Wes Anderson has stepped off the edge. Ten years ago, this would have just been that story, but now it feels like he feels the need to add layers of quirkiness and weirdness and “character” on top of what is already there. Sometimes, this works. The Grand Budapest Hotel, after all is a story we see through layers of abstraction—a girl is reading the story in a book written by someone who is relating a story that he was told by the person who lived it. But in The Grand Budapest Hotel, we aren’t pulled out of that story frequently. It’s all levels of parenthesis—the girl opens the book, we see the author tell us this is a story he was told. We see the story, then we see the author, then we see the girl. Asteroid City can’t help but remind us frequently that we are watching a story about the story—the actual plot we want to be involved in is just a play within the world of the movie.

I do also wonder if there was some falling out between Anderson and some of his frequent stars. The Tom Hanks role here, even five years ago, would have been Bill Murray’s. There’s also a clear absence of Frances McDormand, and no Owen or Luke Wilson.

I always want to like Wes Anderson. I felt like The French Dispatch was a stumble. Asteroid City, had it dropped all of the framing stories, would have been a return to half a decade ago. As it is, it’s a step up from the previous, but not a full step.

Why to watch Asteroid City: The cast is 90% of Hollywood.
Why not to watch: I think Wes Anderson has stepped over the horizon of narrative and quirkiness.


  1. Correction... Jarvis Cocker was in Pulp. Not Blur.

    I enjoyed this film a lot for its quirkiness as well as the fact that it had layers upon layers as it was a more focused film than The French Dispatch which I liked but not as much as other films by Wes Anderson.

    1. Yeah, you're right. In my head, I had it correct. This is Hardcore is a favorite of mine.

    2. That's my favorite Pulp album followed by Different Class.

  2. I'm with you on not loving story of the creation of the play, despite how much I enjoy Bryan Cranston. I still really enjoyed the film, but I didn't necessarily need that.

    1. For me (and I agree with you on Bryan Cranston), this probably bumps up a full star without the framing story. I didn't care about the playwright or the director. I cared far more about the people in Asteroid City.