Welcome to Asteroid City, Wes Anderson’s companion piece to The French Despatch, another film appearing to take its inspiration from yellowing adverts in ancient back issues of Life magazine to depict a world where corporate capture by Hollywood, the military-industrial complex and Madison Avenue is rendered in Anderson’s ironic deadpan – the writing, the acting, the visuals, the soundtrack all point in the same direction.
The action centres on a 1950s desert waystation where a motley group of people get trapped together after a recent atom bomb test, and then get locked down (spot the pandemic) after an alien arrives and steals the asteroid that gives the area its name.
Anderson’s usual collection of geeks and freaks this time include a gaggle of youthful stargazing brainiacs competing for a prize offered by the US military (in collaboration with a mysterious organisation called the Larkings Institute), with Jeffrey Wright as a no-nonsense general, Tilda Swinton as a barking scientist, Jason Schwartzman as the father of one of the brainiacs, Scarlett Johansson as a movie star caught up in the lockdown and forced to mix with the normals, plus Maya Hawke as a teacher in charge of a busload of kids.
There are distancing effects in Brechtian style. Bryan Cranston plays a 1950s TV host who tells us, as the movie begins, that what we’re all about to see is all made up. He introduces us to Ed Norton’s playwright Conrad Earp, the guy who is writing the story about what all those people got up to in the desert with each other and a random alien. And anxious Earp introduces us to his world – the desert, these characters and so on.
Another distancing effect is the ironic approach. Bill Murray does not appear in this movie. He left mid-production – take your pick from Covid or Covid-as-useful-cover-story (sexual allegations) – but it’s his dry ironic delivery that most of his actors appropriate to deliver deadpan dialogue with a half-hoisted eyebrow.
There are cameos, lots of them – Jeff Goldblum and Margot Robbie I saw but I missed Jarvis Cocker – and there are midway-to-supporting-status roles for Tom Hanks, Matt Dillon, Hope Davis, Liev Schreiber, Adrien Brody and Rupert Friend.
Whoever called it “Haemmorhoid City” has a point. Asteroid City has the Tupperware colour palette and precise, shadowless lighting and almost two-dimensional cartoon look that we’ve come to expect from Anderson. But it is also a pain in the butt, one whimsical comedy sketch drifting along until supplanted by another. And it’s painfully short of emotional content. Irony masquerading as humour will do that.
Anderson adds love interest, with the burgeoning affection between fellow brainiacs Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and Dinah (Grace Edwards) and for a while it looks like the touching liaison that made Moonrise Kingdom so engaging is going to invigorate Asteroid City as well.
In the end it doesn’t. Instead Anderson switches track to offer another possibility: the growing feelings between the self-obsessed star played by Johansson, the improbably named Midge Campbell, and Schwartzman’s everyday dad Augie Steenbeck, with Johansson the only one of this talented troupe apart from Wright (who’s not in it enough to really count) who manages to find a way of communicating – acting – through the suffocating layer of ironic detachment.
Late on in their relationship – such as it is – Midge says to Augie after he’s burned his hand on the Quickie-Griddle (ironic product placement) in his room – “You really did it. That actually happened!” It is perhaps the key line in a movie in which not much is real and not much appears to happen, odd considering an alien arrives and an A bomb detonates. Is it a piece of self-critique by Anderson? A note to self that stuff does need to actually happen?
It was beguiling and fascinating until suddenly it wasn’t. It was exquisite until it became boring. It was amusing until whimsy defeated it. Will Anderson ever make a film that isn’t ironic? Even as a thought experiment?
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© Steve Morrissey 2023