Cannes 2023 Review: Wes Anderson's "Asteroid City"
Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, this 1950s sci-fi tale of earth-shattering events in a space-obsessed desert town is an exhilarating triumph of pure style.
Like any movie by Wes Anderson, “Asteroid City” is the epitome of a Wes Anderson movie. A film about a television program about a play within a play “about infinity and I don’t know what else” (as one character describes it), this delightfully profound desert charmer boasts all of his usual hallmarks and then some. To say that he’s done it again is going to mean something different to fans and non-fans. But I have to say, the first category is the only place to be for what is simply a terrifically entertaining and lightly sophisticated new comedy from Wes Anderson, in his signature rectilinear, deadpan style, with primary-pastel colours and his all-star repertory ensemble cast.
So far, so typical, even if “Asteroid City” itself is as vibrant and elaborate a location as Anderson has ever conceived. Home to exactly 87 people, this one-pump town is split along either side of a long desert highway and crisscrossed by a set of train tracks the government uses to transport everything from pecans to nuclear warheads. There’s a luncheonette with 12 stools, a motor court with 10 cabins, and a vending machine where you can buy tiny real estate plots as if they were candy bars. There’s an unfinished off-ramp that strands cars about 15 feet in the air, and — in the distance — a massive crater formed by a meteorite waiting at the bottom for who knows how many years.
Jason Schwartzman plays a widowed war photographer who gets his cranky, grieving father-in-law (Tom Hanks) to come and help look after the kids; he falls for a nearby inventor-kid mom, a movie star played by Scarlett Johansson. Jeffrey Wright plays the general in charge, Steve Carell is the motel owner, Matt Dillon is the town’s mechanic, and Rupert Friend is the local singing cowpoke. Hope Davis and Liev Schreiber are among the parents, and everyone is delivering the lines with absolute seriousness.
Soaking up the “clean light” of the desert sun, Robert Yeoman’s camera reveals most of these sights reveal to us in the span of a single 360-degree swivel. This flex underlines Anderson’s absolute command over the film’s set where his characters will soon be trapped against their will, thus forcing them to surrender the delusion of control that has defined so many of Anderson’s characters over the course of his career. It’s maybe the most radical thing that has ever happened in one of his movies and it spins “Asteroid City” in a cosmic new direction. This film’s eccentricity, its elegance, and its sheer profusion of detail within the tableau frame make it such a pleasure. So, too, does its dapper styling of classic American pop culture. With every new shot, your eyes dart around the screen, grabbing at all the painterly little jokes and embellishments, each getting a micro-laugh.
But overall, the deeper this movie disappears into itself, the more its play-like rhythms begin to create their own rhymes. Over time, it becomes increasingly clear that everything in “Asteroid City” is in service of Augie’s gnawing uncertainty and faltering resolve. Everything returns to the indivisibly Anderson-ian notion that whatever peace we can find in this world is dependent upon harnessing the various things we can never understand about it. For Augie, it’s his loss. For Woodrow, his wonder. “Use your grief,” one character instructs. “Trust your curiosity,” another implores. There are forces in the universe that Augie will never be able to capture on film, but “Asteroid City” suggests that’s all the more reason he should look for them through the lens of his camera.