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‘Asteroid City’ – unusual explorations of human emotions

‘Asteroid City’ – unusual explorations of human emotions
‘Asteroid City’ with Tom Hanks and Jason Schwartzman. Photograph: Courtesy © 2022 Pop. 87 Productions LLC

The latest sci-fi romantic comedy by Wes Anderson, like his other movies, could be described as 'quirky' and 'charming', because Anderson’s movies are pervaded by idiosyncrasies, and convey a nostalgia for the days of youth. But in his stories, childhood is not a vision of innocence and sweet fantasy.

A revealing (and often tricky) game of review-watching is to find articles on Wes Anderson movies that don’t lean on the words “quirky”, “twee” or “whimsical”. 

These journalistic shortcuts vary from unoriginal to false, and the experiences that refute such adjectives are the very substance of his latest release, Asteroid City.

The movie spans several familiar genres, and some unfamiliar ones. It’s a family drama, in which the grieving war photographer Augie Steenbeck (played by Jason Schwartzman) informs his three young daughters and adolescent son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), that their mother has died. The family is in the fictional desert outpost of Asteroid City, in 1955, where the young genius Woodrow is being awarded as a Junior Stargazer, along with four other young honourees.

Asteroid City is also a romantic comedy, as Woodrow takes up with one of his fellow teenage wonders, Dinah (Grace Edwards), while Augie becomes amorously connected with Dinah’s mother, a film star named Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson).

The narrative structure proves to be among Anderson’s most complicated. To put it succinctly, Asteroid City depicts a fictional television broadcast, which portrays the making of a stage production, and which enacts the fictitious play as a movie, where we meet Augie, Woodrow, Dinah, Midge and a panoply of other characters. Schwartzman plays Augie, but he also plays the stage actor who plays Augie, and so on with the other cast members.

‘Asteroid City’ with Scarlett Johansson. (Photo: Courtesy © 2022 Pop. 87 Productions LLC)

Liev Schreiber, Steve Carell and Aristou Meehan in ‘Asteroid City’. (Photo: Courtesy © 2022 Pop. 87 Productions LLC)

It’s easier to watch than it may sound, but this formal complexity rewards multiple viewings, where not only the levels of framing but also the abundance of visual detail and character nuance can be realised more fully. The different layers break onto each other in ways that are both shocking and inevitable.

Reviewers may fall back on descriptors like the terms above, because Anderson’s movies are pervaded by idiosyncrasies, and convey a nostalgia for the days of youth. But, in his stories childhood is not a vision of innocence and sweet fantasy; children’s lives are as marked by risk – in fact, as dangerous as those of adults. And his style isn’t merely a brand or affectation; it’s the full and physical realisation of an artistic practice, of a worldview, of an inner life bursting out.

The style of Asteroid City encompasses and infuses every element seen and heard in its 105 minutes, from the switches between black-and-white and colour, to the droll and deadpan comedic antics; from its warm, powdery palette of aquamarine and Looney Tunes-orange, to its complicated experiments in storytelling.

‘Asteroid City’ with Liev Schreiber, Steve Carell, Hope Davis, Stephen Park and Roger Cho. (Photo: Courtesy © 2022 Pop. 87 Productions LLC)

‘Asteroid City’ stars Bob Balaban, Fisher Stevens, Jeffrey Wright and Tony Revolori. (Photo: Courtesy © 2022 Pop. 87 Productions LLC)

Anderson’s tightly controlled aesthetic may sound like it hinders authentic feelings, but the miracle of artistry is that in creating something artificial, it can reveal true life more finely. Asteroid City evokes human emotions within, rather than depicting them realistically; it reflects the cosmic vastness of a person’s inner life that, no matter how neatly organised or controlled, can never be certain or wholly satisfying.

The emotional possibilities this opens up are most pointedly felt when Anderson’s characters confront their isolation and suffering. Augie and Midge’s romance isn’t the easy, hopeful affair enjoyed by their children. Each is reeling from loss, and the performances of Schwartzman and Johansson suggest the deep pain echoing beneath their carnal heat and cool surfaces.

An exquisite artistic style can also transform painful feelings by considering the paradoxical beauty and richness of experiencing them – by hiding them in plain sight, with visual imagination and grandeur. Midge’s short black wig is a reminder of another film star of the Fifties who masked emotional suffering with artistic and physical beauty: Elizabeth Taylor. 

She describes herself and Augie as “catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depths of their pain because we don’t want to”. 

That line, in its grace and despair, could be said by Anderson of any of his artistic creations, or perhaps even of himself. DM

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