I wrote earlier today that Wes Anderson‘s Asteroid City (Focus Features, 6.16) would almost certainly be “another signature tableau exercise in WesWorld irony — zero emotion, wit, whimsy, staccato dialogue, a darkly humorous attitude, etc.”
Add in the other familiar signatures — formal framings, immaculate and super-specific production design, etc. — and that’s pretty much what Asteroid City is…surprise!
Having been a conflicted Anderson fan for over 25 years and an Anderson friendo since ’94, it breaks my heart to say this once again, but Asteroid City is a whole lotta fun to splash around in, eye-bath-wise, but there’s almost nothing going on except the Anderson troupe reciting their lines just so.
Immaculate style (in this instance ’50s kitsch) mixed with bone-dry humor and not much else.
Yes, Asteroid City features a meaningless, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Scarlett Johansson nude scene (nothing remotely close to that buck naked Lea Seydoux posing-for-Benicio del Toro scene in The French Dispatch).
And a delightful musical sequence featuring some wonderful Oklahoma!-like polka dancing, performed by Maya Hawke and Rupert Friend.
And a cartoonish, silly-looking alien with 1950s Warner Bros. animation department bug eyes who, in 1955, twice pays a visit to Asteroid City, the small-town site of a Junior Stargazers convention. Except the alien does nothing (no threats or love or anything in between) and has nothing to say or to teach like Michael Rennie did four years earlier…zip.
The song-and-dance sequence, which ignites with the joyful spirit of choreographer Agnes DeMille, indicates that Wes feels real affection for musicals. Perhaps if he had filmed Asteroid City as a sung-through opera?
But of course, he didn’t and probably couldn’t. Because (and again, it really hurts to say this) he’s been wrapped so tightly in his WesWorld aesthetic — dry sardonic humor, deadpan line readings, somber philosophical musings — that he can’t seem to bust out of it or has lost interest in doing so or whatever.
Remember when Wes’s characters went through actual human difficulties and occasionally expressed emotion? The kind you could relate to, I mean? Certainly in Bottle Rocket (Luke Wilson‘s glorious love for Inez, the motel maid) and Rushmore (romantic obsession, jealous rage) and more recently in Grand Hotel Budapest (bittersweet nostalgia for a certain elegant, old-world way of life that’s been washed away by time).
What is Asteroid City attempting to deal with, metaphorically or adult-behavior-wise or what-have-you?
The best I can figure is that it’s about complacency — several highly attuned, obviously intelligent characters who are, of course, nominally aware of the alien’s visit and are taken aback by this world-shaking event but can’t say or deduce or conclude anything of substance. Nothing means nothing, but they sure are surrounded by a lot of drop-dead southwestern nothingness (fake mesas in the distance, a huge tourist-attraction crater), and the film sure is an eyeful to look at. It’ll probably give you an occasional chuckle or, more likely, an LQTM moment.