Asteroid City  (12A) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Wes Anderson, US,2023, 105 mins

Cast:  Jason Schwarzmann, Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johanssen, Bryan Cranston

Review by Carol Allen

Film maker West Anderson does love complicated concepts.   His previous film The French Dispatch took the form of four dramatized articles from a New Yorker style magazine produced in France – which was original but rather easier to get to grips with than Asteroid City.  

Here the concept is a film about a play which is in the process of being written by playwright Conrad Earp  (Edward Norton) and deals with a fictional town in the desert in the fifties, which is renowned for the big crater created by a meteor three thousand years ago.   We are also being taken through the half written play via a tv programme taking place in a theatre with the process being explained by a helpful narrator Bryan Cranston.  Complex or what? 

To whet your appetite though  It does though have an amazingly starry cast – another Anderson trademark.  Jason Schwarzmann, Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johanssen in what could be seen as the leads, with actors such as Willem Dafoe, Mat Dillon, Margot Robbie, Steve Carell, Tilda Swinton, Rupert Friend and others popping up in supporting roles

The main action is set in 1955.  After Cranston introduces the play in a black and white sequence in the deserted theatre, the  play is acted out as  a film in a deliberately artificial film set in the desert.  The somewhat convoluted story deals with a widower, Augie (Schwarzmann), who brings his children and his late wife’s ashes (in a Tupperware box) to an educational space science symposium for juniors taking place in the  strange and remote little community of the title.  

However the military led by Jeffrey Wright are involved in trying to keep it as what appears to be the world’s worst kept secret.  We briefly see a mushroom cloud in the distance.  So are they testing atom bombs ?  Not a great place for a young people’s symposium then.  No, it’s because they are expecting the arrival of an alien in a spaceship, – a rather cute looking animated figure, when he arrives – who removes something from them (the bomb perhaps?) and then flies away. Referencing perhaps those tales of the period about aliens who landed in the desert?

Augie, whose car has died on him and is sitting with many other vehicles in the community’s car cemetery, has summoned his father in law (Tom Hanks) to get the family home.   Augie also fancies movie star Midge (Johanssen) who is there with her daughter but he doesn’t really get very far with her.  And every so often we cut back to New York and the theatre, where the writer and the actors, who are playing the characters in the film that is actually a play (are you still with me?) are struggling, not surprisingly, with the complicated story,  while the supposed whiz kid theatre director (Adrien Brody) is contributing sweet Fanny Adams to the proceedings.  Confused?  Yes, I was a bit.

The film however looks delicious.   The bright candy colours of the deliberately fragile looking sets – the gas station, the luncheonette and the rest – are well contrasted with the grainy black and white of the theatre sequences.   There are also some brilliant comic moments, such as when a pretty schoolteacher’s cowboy suitor (Rupert Friend) summons his chums for an unexpected hoe-down or when Cranston suddenly finds himself in a technicolour shot in the desert, where he has no business being.  And the arrival of the alien ship with its echoes of  Close Encounters is fun, though actor Jeff Goldblum, credited with the role, is certainly is not inside that skinny animation.

If you are a Wes Anderson fan you may well love this for its sheer wackiness and imagination.   If not however, you could find its lack of narrative clarity a teensy bit irritating.