When the trailer for Asteroid City was released, my first reaction was, “Yes, that certainly is a Wes Anderson movie.” No filmmaker working today has such a readily recognizable visual mode, to the degree that discovering it in reality and mimicking it in AI-assisted fan films have become cottage meme industries.
Of course, no one can make a Wes Anderson movie like the man himself, which turns out to be a mixed blessing. When your every casting quirk and cinematographic fetish has become a virtual trademark, how do you continue to till the same aesthetic fields without becoming a parody of yourself, a one-trick pony whose once-refreshing stylization has become little more than a brand?
Anderson demonstrates his awareness of that predicament, if not a fully satisfying answer to it, in Asteroid City. Using a narrative structure that’s as mathematically precise as his camera movements, he has crafted a movie-with-a-play-within-a-TV-show that has at its tiny emotional core a story about grief and loss.
That core consists of Augie Steenbeck, a pipe-smoking war photographer who has traveled to a remote Nevada hamlet with his teenaged son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three identical triplet young daughters. It’s the 1950s, and Woodrow, a scientific prodigy, has been invited to a camp for fellow brainiacs conducted under the auspices of the U.S. military. (Atomic bomb tests occasionally rattle the town’s few windows.)
Augie is played by Jason Schwartzman, and it’s worth pausing to note how Schwartzman has evolved from playing the precocious misfit in Anderson’s Rushmore to playing the father of one here. What hasn’t evolved is his characters’ ability to process and express emotions: Augie has yet to inform his children that their mother died three weeks ago and summons his father-in-law (Tom Hanks) to help deal with this dilemma.
When, on the camp’s first night, an extraterrestrial sighting prompts a quarantine of Asteroid City, the Steenbecks are trapped there along with the other attendees and their parents, who include movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson); a school teacher (Maya Hawke) and her class; a cowboy (Rupert Friend) and his pals; the local grease monkey (Matt Dillon); the motel manager (Steve Carell); the general overseeing the whole thing (Jeffrey Wright); the lead scientist (Tilda Swinton) and others. (Just writing that sentence feels like a parody of a Wes Anderson trailer.) Woodrow strikes up a tentative romance with Midge’s daughter (Grace Edwards, who’s a standout in her first significant role), while his father develops a bond with the ennui-laden star herself.
We only get to all this, however, after an introduction from a black-and-white Bryan Cranston, the host of a TV program that purports to take viewers (us) inside the preparation and production of a play, namely the one we eventually see in vivid color with a roster of stars. The behind-the-scenes stuff centers on Tennessee Williams-esque playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), macho director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), and the casting process. So, for instance, Schwartzman plays Augie in the movie, but he plays the actor playing Augie in the black-and-white scenes.
If this seems like a lot to pack into an hour and forty-four minutes, it is. True to form, Anderson rarely lets more than a few seconds go by without rapid-fire dialogue or a gracefully executed side pan, or both. Because he knows what he’s doing, this never feels assaultive or overwhelming, and it’s certainly never boring. But there’s also a certain evanescence to all these bells and whistles, a sense that they’re ways to get around dealing with the feelings at the heart of the tale. Which, I suppose, might be the point.
If Asteroid City is about how stories can both help us process trauma and distract us from it, then there’s an additional layer of metafiction to contend with, since Anderson’s tightly controlled creations have always seemingly served that purpose for him. Nostalgia, missing parents, forging trivial order out of existential chaos—these have been constant themes, and they’ve been tackled with dry-eyed and dry-witted aplomb.
One of the reasons The Royal Tenenbaums remains Anderson’s highest achievement is that it’s the one film where his characters are allowed to fully break down, where the anguish and fury of a dysfunctional family is allowed to vent. There are hints of that in Asteroid City, as there have been in most of his films. While this latest is a marvelous piece of whip-smart entertainment, we’re still waiting to see what might happen when the director relaxes his grip on the wheel and lets his gut take a little more control. (Opens Thursday, June 22, at theaters nationwide.)
ALSO THIS WEEK:
It’s no secret that theaters have continued to struggle to attract audiences post-pandemic, especially to see films that don’t have superheroes or video game characters in them. Portland’s Living Room Theaters has come up with an initiative to address that problem that’s hard to beat: free movies! Every Sunday night, Living Room will screen a different repertory title for free, in the hope that once folks experience the joys of communal viewing in comfy seats with a refreshing beverage and a tasty snack, they’ll get back in the habit. And the selections are nothing to sneeze at: George Lucas’s first feature, THX-1138, screens this Sunday, June 25, followed by Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Blazing Saddles and other favorites throughout the summer. If you miss the free screenings, each title will also screen on the Tuesday of the following week…for a price. Check the Living Room Theater website for a full schedule.
Portland-based rockers Portugal. The Man are in the middle of a busy year, touring to support their first album in six years, which will be released Friday, June 23. Despite their considerable success, they’ve always had a knack for keeping things local and real. (The Portland Pickles baseball club is hosting Portugal. The Man night on Sunday, for instance.) Three videos from that new record, Chris Brown Saved My Life, will have their world premiere on Saturday, June 23, at Movie Madness. The clips will play on a loop from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the store’s miniplex, so pop in to get a sneak peek. And I’m sure the folks at Movie Madness wouldn’t mind if you picked up a DVD or three to rent while you’re there.
BLU-RAY OF THE WEEK: Speaking of movies on disc, I don’t know if Movie Madness will stock the new three-disc Anna May Wong Collection or not, but wherever you have to go to get it, it’s worth the trip. Wong, of course, was early Hollywood’s best-known Asian-American star, bringing glamour, mystique, and keen intelligence to a series of movies that mostly didn’t deserve her. The three titles in this set, all produced by Paramount Pictures in 1938 and 1939, offer ample proof of two things: Wong’s ability to rise above stock material, and the studio system’s ability to churn out eminently watchable, fast-paced product at an astonishing pace. Dangerous to Know and Island of Lost Men are brisk, if creaky, fun, but it’s King of Chinatown that really demands attention. Co-starring Akim Tamiroff and a very young Anthony Quinn (a frequent co-star of Wong’s), it features Wong as a surgeon and Philip Ahn as her lover, a lawyer. Seeing Asian-American stars playing capable, socially integrated professionals in a 1939 film is refreshing and astonishing. (Sadly, onetime Charlie Chan Sidney Toler, a Swede, plays Wong’s character’s father in yellowface.) It’s barely an hour, and barely a story, but boy is it fascinating. Frankly, all three of these films are the sort you can probably find streaming for free on YouTube in some degraded print, but they are marvelously restored on these Blu-Ray discs, which come with informational and entertaining audio commentary tracks from journalists and historians who have done their research.
FRIDAY: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Extended Edition) (Cinemagic); Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (Hollywood, also Saturday)
SATURDAY: His Girl Friday (Cinema 21); The LEGO Movie (Cinemagic); The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Extended Edition) (Cinemagic); Nashville (Hollywood, also Sunday)
SUNDAY: The revealing documentary All Male: The International Male Story tells the rags-to-riches tale of the mail-order clothing catalog that became a touchstone of the gay community (Hollywood); The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Extended Edition) (Cinemagic)
MONDAY: Happy Together (Clinton St.), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Standard Edition) (Cinemagic); RRR (Hollywood)
TUESDAY: The 1983 documentary Dressed in Blue follows six trans women living in conservative post-Franco Spain (Clinton St.); Lucio Fulci’s gory 1980 grindhouse favorite Gates of Hell (Hollywood, 35mm); The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Standard Edition) (Cinemagic)
WEDNESDAY: The compilation FHAR/MLF features an array of rare work made by the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action (FHAR) and the Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF) in post-May 68 France. (Clinton St.); The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Standard Edition) (Cinemagic); V: The Original Minseries (Hollywood)
THURSDAY: King Kong (2005) (Cinemagic)