If you look online, it isn't hard to find a parody of Wes Anderson’s work. Those meticulous arrangements, symmetric staging, and precise color schemes have become an easy joke to make about the talented filmmaker. Anderson chooses to answer those critics by doubling down on his layered and distinct style. One could call Asteroid City, his wonderful new film, the most Wes Anderson film to date.
Underlining the obsessively created mise-en-scene is the need for so many of Anderson's characters to control their lives in the face of uncertainty. Think about how the return of their father sends the Tenenbaum children into disarray, the army-style regiment of Moonrise Kingdom is disassembled by the mania of young love, or how the brothers in The Darjeeling Limited are sent spiraling when their father dies. Asteroid City may be the purest exploration of this theme because it is all about the unknown, whether it be our great universe, what love is, or the meaning of creating art. Anderson finds the common among all of these.
The film is set in 1955, a moment in US History when everything seemed possible. The war is behind America and yet, off in the distance mushroom clouds still appear. There is a sense that a darker future may lie ahead. The folks populating Asteroid City, all 83 of them, are all in flux. The town itself is in between a popup military base and a proper city. Plots of land can be purchased from one of the many vending machines at the motel bungalows in which most of the film takes place.
Arriving in the town are the Young Stargazers and Space Cadets, young teens full of curiosity and brilliance accompanied by their families. The U.S. military and local observatory are hosting a celebration for them. Among those families are the Steenbecks, led by Augie (Jason Schwartzman). Augie is a recent widower who hasn't told his kids their mom died several weeks ago as the film opens. Augie is a war photographer also in transition. His children are all precocious, especially Woodrow (Jake Ryan), his 15-year-old son. Woodrow begins to fall for Dinah (Grace Edwards) while Augie falls for her mother, Hollywood starlet Midge (Scarlett Johansson). Midge is a fatalist after playing a string of "abused alcoholics."
This film, we are told, is actually a theater piece being adapted for television written by celebrated playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). Asteroid City actually opens with Bryan Cranston playing a Rod Serling-type host. At regular intervals, the film cuts back to this televised staging, or the rehearsal for it. The actors, like their characters, all seem to be dealing with their fears of the unknown. Jones Hall (Schwartzman as the actor playing Augie) is fraught with how to depict Augie's grief. We learn that his "lostness" is his genius.
Where Asteroid City stands out is in the way Anderson can connect the mysteries of the human condition with the unknowns of the universe. The film suggests it will take more than science or art alone to figure things out. When an alien visits the inhabitants of Asteroid City, everyone is thrust into facing their preconceived notions of reality and their place in it. Anderson loosens his style at this point of the film, allowing the rest to play out with messy humanity that is often so in check in his films. The film transcends Anderson's style at this point culminating in a beautiful scene with Margot Robbie as two actors recall a scene that was cut and what that means to their lives. It's one of the best moments in all of Anderson's career and it alone should make you see the film, but as with all his films, there is so much more to admire.