Asteroid City (2023) Directed by Wes Anderson
A Wes Anderson film about a Wes Anderson film that breathes the hilarious airs of a great hoax. Wes Anderson’s fastidiously eccentric Asteroid City reaches a level of parodic self-consciousness in which he implements what is unequivocally his most contrived project; the theatrical plasticity is celebrated, the deadpan humor complements it, and the rigorous form gives it an autonomous existence. After venturing into journalistic prose and essayistic format in The French Dispatch, now in Asteroid City the peculiar Andersonian philosophy ventures into a dramaturgical meta-narrative about a play written by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) – seen live by us in shimmering color while a monochromatic academic format is interjected at intervals in which a television host (Bryan Cranston) narrates the context of the theatrical production – a story that takes place sometime in the 1950s, where it assembles a colorful and diverse group of characters at an astronomy convention for teenagers.
The eponymous setting is a remote location where you can witness a colossal crater, where the awards ceremony will be held for the various participants for their futuristic inventions. Jason Schwartzman plays the secular and ironic father of a boy genius (Jake Ryan), one of the participants in this amateur astronomy convention. The play’s quirky relationships and the issues they discuss feature an intertextuality that references the idiosyncrasies of Wes Anderson’s other films – the grandiloquent style here is so synthetic that it removes any semblance of humanity from the characters, articulating with that purposeful, inhuman coldness a scathing mockery against those who judge his formalist ethics as alienating and aloof from the realistic emotions of the world as we know it. It doesn’t require bravery to laugh at your detractors, but it does require audacity to laugh at yourself, and above all to make your own myth one of the most wonderful frauds of modern cinema.
The farcical tone in this UFO fable and nostalgic retro-futuristic drama is as amusing as it is dull, and it is palpable how self-absorbed Anderson – the demiurge of this apocryphal picturesque adventure – is in doggedly pursuing a confluence of the best of his gifts as an artist and the worst of his eccentricities as a filmmaker. Understandably, I can see many being lulled into drowsiness by the overly conversational filmmaking system that operates as a potent sleeping pill in every sequence, thus preventing an emotional and intellectual reciprocity between audience and screen. Nonetheless, the intentions are set from the beginning, more form than content. This makes the geometric dogmatism of the camera and the elaborate visual patterns it designs incapable of flexibility. The effects are robotic, but everything in Asteroid City looks proudly gorgeous, its colors seem as if they had been realized by a three-strip Technicolor modulated with touches of digital lighting. Wes Anderson has absolute control of these formalities which, while not behaving with the anti-tragic lyricism of his most celebrated works, finally responds -categorically and sincerely- that he is not going to alter his principles just for the ubiquitous approval of the masses.
In its three-act theatrical structure there is an alluring magic to be found, the craftsmanship of the style expresses both melancholy and mirth – the goofy alien sequence concentrates the funniest moment in all of Anderson’s body of work, yet it is also a fusion of ineffable sensations that elicit much more than mere amusement – and there is not a single actor who doesn’t seem to be having a good time, not only are there multiple additions of major name actors in the Anderson canon but all are indispensable even if some only appear for ephemeral seconds. Having said all that, the aftertaste the film leaves you with is perhaps not quite up to the rhapsodic proportions of Wes Anderson’s other escapades, this one is rather jarringly abrupt but in one of its most tasteful forms. That’s good enough for me.