“You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep,” people are advised more than once in Wes Anderson’s madly original 11th film, Asteroid City, which is both addictively stylized and, like this clever little quote, perhaps more than a tad obscure about what it’s ultimately driving at. Set entirely in a sort-of Monument Valley-adjacent desert setting in 1955 and populated by a fabulous ensemble cast, this Cannes Film Festival competition entry from Focus Features, which will open commercially in the U.S. on June 16, is a madly quirky surprise that oozes creativity at every turn. At the same time, however, it sometimes seems to be reaching for serious creative epiphanies that aren’t forthcoming and which foster puzzlement rather than insight.
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You can always tell an Anderson film from the get-go; no American director so formally stylizes compositions and camera moves the way he and his regular cinematographer Robert Yeoman do. The new film is characterized by the innumerable lateral tracking shots that long have been one of the duo’s trademarks.
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Yet this is no Western but rather, one might say, an anti-Eastern, in the anti-communist sense. It’s the height of the Cold War, when school-age children were told to be on the lookout for spies and suspicious characters and to worry about the atom bomb. This stalwart desert outpost in many ways resembles a classic 1950s destination: There’s the spiffy diner where you sit at the counter, remnants of carnival rides and other nifty attractions and a sense of accomplishment at keeping the enemy at bay. If double-bills still existed in movie theaters today, some clever exhibitor might be inclined to pair this film with Christopher Nolan’s forthcoming Oppenheimer.
The ostensible reason for all these characters to have gathered in the desert is Asteroid Day. But something else is percolating here that gives the story another dimension altogether: What’s happening is actually part of a play that the actors, some of whom we’ve already seen, are performing in New York City. Everyone knows that the show must go on, but doubt seems to cloud the enterprise and it’s unclear how things will work out.
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At least at first, this narrative artifice seems like a distraction more than an excitingly adventurous or illuminating adjunct to the events as they play out in the desert. For considerable stretches, you don’t see New York or anywhere else, so the viewer tends to settle back into the main narrative where there are always matters, big and small, to attend to. For good stretches, you even forget
that this narrative interruption device even exists, and the film is better for it.
With probably 90% of the film taking place in Arizona (although the film was shot in Spain), one’s attention increasingly centers on the plentitude of eccentric figures who haven’t left the desert or felt sufficiently motivated to get out of Dodge. Just for starters you have leading actor Jonas Hall (Jason Schwartzman), with four kids in tow; Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a film star accompanied by her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards); combat photographer Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks); five-star general Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright); photographer Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton); TV host (Bryan Cranston) and playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton).
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Catching one’s attention as well is Anderson’s penchant, here visible more than ever, for using those fast lateral camera moves as absolutely often as possible; one doesn’t see this predilection terribly often in other films, so it seems as though Anderson is trying to even the scales by employing it, at a guess, well over 50% of the time here. At the very least, it’s a shooting style you notice and will remember and has, with this director and his protean DoP Yeoman, the radicalizing effect of seeming to make the film considerably more urgent and propulsive than the norm.
Scene after scene has a snap and urgency to it that matches the speed of the dialogue delivery and gives the film a sort of stylized urgency that is both distinctive and funny. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up, and yet somehow it doesn’t matter at all, as one feels welcomed into a weird world where propulsive, highly articulate and precisely enunciated speech is the norm; the Cary Grant of Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday would have felt right at home in Anderson’s distinctive world.
On the other hand, the show-within-a-film conceit doesn’t really pay off; arguably, it complicates the work with little to show for it, and general audiences, as opposed to art film aficionados, will be baffled as to what’s going on. There is even one more layer to the proceedings that, arguably, is more of a bother than a plus. But otherwise, this is a fresh, original and disarming creation unlike anything else you might have seen with a degree of stylized storytelling that is notable and often exciting.
Title: Asteroid City
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Distributor: Focus Features (June 16 U.S. release date)
Director: Wes Anderson
Screenwriters: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum
Running time: 1 hr 44 min
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