This story was originally published in the Reno News & Review.
With Asteroid City, writer-director Wes Anderson continues to show he’s lost his way after his first misfire, 2021’s The French Dispatch. He’s suddenly become a boring director of two flat films in a row.
Until Dispatch, all of his films had a stylized sense of adventure, and were full of life and emotional sweetness. They were all undeniably good. In contrast, his latest two are uncharacteristically flat offerings from a normally zestful guy. I was bored to death while watching this one.
A lot of Anderson’s films have been presented almost as if they were plays, with title cards announcing scenes, and tableau-type shots with characters breaking the fourth wall. His directorial signature is a kind of cute, intentional staginess—but Asteroid City takes things a step further. A Rod Serling-type narrator (played by Bryan Cranston) announces that we are about to see a play called Asteroid City. He introduces the cast, and the backstage setting looks like an old 1950s TV show. We then see the play as a Wes Anderson-type movie, with over-stylized, cartoonish sets; lots of sweep cuts; and title cards.
We also get glimpses behind the scenes of the play with its creators (played by Edward Norton and Adrien Brody) communicating with the performers and crew. It’s another portal into the filmmaking style of Anderson.
Yeah, OK. Whatever. It’s too much. At this point, it’s almost as if he is parodying himself.
The play presented onscreen looks like the Cars ride at Disneyland, set somewhere in the Nevada desert, with the occasional poofy atomic-test cloud sprouting up. Visually, the movie is actually quite interesting, but the “play” gimmick grows tired and slows the action down. Just make a movie, Wes!
There’s a willing cast presenting Asteroid City, including Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Maya Hawke, Matt Dillon and many others. There’s no Bill Murray this time out; Steve Carell replaced him when he got COVID-19.
The story has something to do with a bunch of young scientists gathering for a convention in the desert at the time when atomic tests were first being fired off. They, and their parents, witness an alien visit (the best sequence in the movie) … and not much else happens.
There are long stretches of the film that feature no soundtrack music and, quite noticeably, no period pop and rock songs, which Anderson has used quite effectively in the past. (Oddly enough, however, you can hear some Slim Whitman, the artist whose music caused alien brains to blow up in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!) Anderson stalwart Alexandre Desplat supplies the original but rather bland score.
This all results in dull passages with the likes of Schwartzman (looking a little like Stanley Kubrick) and Johansson (doing her best Liz Taylor) doing dry, emotionless deliveries of sparse dialogue—with no music to liven things up. It grates on the nerves.
There are a couple of sequences, like the aforementioned alien visit and a goofy musical hoedown number courtesy of Jarvis Cocker, that pop with vintage Anderson goodness. But most of the film just drones on and on.
This a slight improvement over The French Dispatch, which was a collection of stories that lacked any real focus or reason for existing. Asteroid City feels like it could’ve been something relevant had Anderson provided his cast with more words and a livelier environment. His last live-action triumph, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was the ultimate coming together of his visual mastery and fun storytelling. Now? Well, it’s like he’s just trying to show off his style.
Maybe Quentin Tarantino is right, and some directors should just stop at 10 movies. (Tarantino says he’s going to call it quits after his next film, his tenth.) Asteroid City is Anderson’s 11th, and it’s his second gutter ball in a row.
Considering his amazing career—one that includes masterpieces like Rushmore, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (and brilliant stop-motion films like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs)—Anderson deserves a pass for making some duds. He’s already distinguished himself as one of the all-time greats. But with he’s found himself caught in some sort of dull rut as of late. I’ll continue to watch his efforts, and I suspect he will create his way out of it—but I won’t be re-watching this boring exercise in futility again anytime soon.