Wes Anderson is back, and he's Wes Andersoning like never before...
Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks
Running time: 104 minutes
Whenever a new release from a certain eccentric auteur arrives, there seems to be one major question on everyone’s lips: Has Wes Anderson made his film again? Well, with regards to his latest offering, Asteroid City, the answer to that question is a very definitive yes. This conceited comedy-drama is certainly self-indulgent, and often feels more like a work of theatre than a creation for cinema. But don’t get it twisted - it’s as entertaining as it is exhausting.
Through Brian Cranston’s ‘Host’, the audience is introduced to, erm, Asteroid City - a fictional stage production created by famed playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), which follows an eccentric group of creators in 1950s America (played largely by Anderson favourites, with the addition of some major new faces) who are stuck in a desert town when a mysterious extraterrestrial happening rocks (yeah, we said it) their world.
It is through this, for want of a better phrase, ‘meta’ approach that the narrative plays out, with the big-screen viewer watching the workings of this play evolve over time. Cranston, in place of a traditional narrator, regularly crops up to chat us through the occurrences of the film in real-time, a black-and-white filter coming into effect to confirm that, yes, in these moments, we’re back in the real world as we’re meant to know it. And it is through this approach that Asteroid City creates the majority of its own problems.
The auteur’s usual staple of thought-provoking motifs regularly comes to the fore
Just as you’re finding yourself immersed in the main story, a switch back to the on-screen ‘reality’ will drag you right out of the moment, bringing any narrative momentum to a screeching halt. Rather than simply telling an effective story in its own right, Anderson finds himself once again relying on a creative crutch - much like with the magazine-inspired, chapter-based methods of The French Dispatch - feeling like an unnecessary complication in what is otherwise a deeply intriguing tale. This single decision undermines plentiful attempts to properly establish real feeling, preventing the emotional depth from getting, well, deep.
So too does some of the rapid-fire, needlessly convoluted dialogue, which has become something of a trademark of Anderson’s and threatens to border on the pretentious. Oftentimes, the script will feel like it has been written solely for the pleasure of those behind the camera, rather than to offer anything to the audience, keeping us laymen at arm's length.
This is a shame, because Anderson and his writing partner Roman Coppola do pose some interesting questions when we're given a second to consider them. The auteur’s usual staple of thought-provoking motifs regularly comes to the fore - the personality-shaping influence of living in a dysfunctional family, the need for us all to belong, the problematic psychological impact of a dogmatic pursuit of mastering our craft - and these emotional beats regularly land with aplomb.
When it decides to keep things serious and, more importantly, simple, Asteroid City delivers the depth that many regularly accuse Anderson of failing to establish
Certain stretches of dialogue, particularly involving leading man Augie Steenbeck (played brilliantly by Jason Schwartzman, who puts in a scene-stealing performance), demonstrate Anderson’s ability to dive into the complexities of the human psyche. When it decides to keep things serious and, more importantly, simple, Asteroid City delivers the depth that many regularly accuse Anderson of failing to establish.
That said, the film also coughs up some superbly unserious moments, too, and these prove equally effective. In fact, this is probably the most outright comedic outing of Anderson’s since 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, offering a number of properly memorable, properly funny sequences. One specific scene involving a stop-motion extraterrestrial entity is so ridiculous that it’s remarkable. Every square inch of scene is exploited for amusing visual gags, with Aristou Meehan’s Clifford consistently taking on ‘dares’ that prove delightful. And Asteroid City sees Steve Carell flex his comic muscles with incredible effect once more, providing a stark reminder of his unique talent as an entertainer at a time when he largely focuses on more dramatic roles.
This blending of the serious and the absurd is presented in a typically beautiful package - let’s face it, it wouldn’t be a Wes Anderson joint without a heavy focus on the aesthetics. Sure, at times watching Asteroid City does make you feel as though you’re being waterboarded with whimsy, and some scenes do border on over-the-top, but the set design is exquisitely constructed, each character is carefully crafted and fully fleshed-out, and the bright, vibrant colour palette feels refreshing in an era in which Hollywood seems allergic to lighting.
So, yes, Wes Anderson has very much made his film again. But is that such a bad thing? If you can power through the moments of pretence, and instead focus on the witty humour, phenomenal performances, admirable attempts at establishing emotion and almost overwhelmingly impressive visuals, we’d say it certainly is not.
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