Movie Review: Americana, told Wes Anderson-style, in star-filled ‘Asteroid City’

by Ethan Kim
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Movie Review: Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’—A Stellar Blend of Americana and Infinite Storytelling

In “Asteroid City,” Wes Anderson embarks on a heartfelt exploration of grief, performance, storytelling, and the vastness of the cosmos. With his signature meticulous design and choreography, Anderson presents a star-studded cast who eloquently deliver his and Roman Coppola’s witty dialogue. The film captures the unmistakable essence of Wes Anderson’s style, while also marking a return to the storytelling that resonates most with audiences. Anderson’s previous works, “Isle of Dogs” and “The French Dispatch,” had left some fans divided, questioning whether style had overtaken substance. While those films had their merits, they often felt detached, lacking genuine emotion.

In “Asteroid City,” Anderson makes an earnest and self-conscious case for the art of creation, highlighting the significance of putting on a play, telling a story, and embodying a character’s essence, even when the meaning may elude both the artist and the audience. The film employs an elaborate and stylized conceit—a play within a play that is broadcast on a television network, reminiscent of the 1950s show “Playhouse 90.” Anderson ingeniously uses this theatrical setting to infuse the American midcentury Desert West with his desired aesthetics. However, this choice also serves as a clever deflection, symbolizing the uncertainty surrounding the purpose of art itself. Jason Schwartzman, portraying an actor who plays a recently widowed war photographer, delivers a standout performance alongside his brainy son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and the remarkable 6-year-old triplets.

The narrative unfolds in Asteroid City, a town of 87 inhabitants, hosting the Junior Stargazer Convention—a government-organized science competition where brilliant children showcase their inventions, which are subsequently claimed by the government. Jeffrey Wright portrays Gen. Grif Gibson, who explains the significance of scientists in America’s post-war defense strategy. In the backdrop, atomic bombs are tested, but rather than posing a menacing threat, they exude an unexpected charm.

The Stargazer convention brings together a delightful and eccentric ensemble, including government officials (Fisher Stevens), gifted children (Grace Edwards, Sophia Lillis, Ethan Josh Lee, Aristou Meehan) and their parents (Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Steve Park), the head scientist (Tilda Swinton’s Dr. Hickenlooper), a school group led by Maya Hawke, and a group of musically inclined cowboys (including Rupert Friend) who appear to have missed their bus. The locals consist of Hank the mechanic (Matt Dillon) and the motel manager (Steve Carrell). Tom Hanks portrays Stanley Zak, Augie’s father-in-law, a wealthy retiree from Palm Springs with an eccentric fashion sense.

Within the play’s world, we encounter the director (Adrien Brody), his soon-to-be ex-wife (Hong Chau), the Strasberg-inspired acting teacher Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe), the actress whose scene got cut (Margot Robbie), and the host of the television program (Bryan Cranston). Jeff Goldblum also graces the screen in a role that adds to the film’s delightful charm. Each actor delivers a captivating performance, regardless of their role’s size.

While there are characters that undergo transformative arcs, the spotlight shines on Schwartzman and Johansson, particularly Johansson’s understated portrayal of Midge Campbell, a 1950s movie star. Augie and Midge share a fleeting romance, mostly expressed through unspoken emotions, in the trademark repressed Wes Anderson style.

Is the film a tad confusing? Perhaps, but that might be intentional—a part of its inherent charm. “Asteroid City,” with its sprawling cast, vibrant aesthetics, subtle humor, nested narrative structure, and nostalgic soundtrack, manages to evoke emotions even if it doesn’t fully unravel its own mysteries.

“Just keep telling the story,” as Brody Schubert Green advises an actor seeking answers and motivations. This line could be interpreted as a nonchalant shrug, or it could encapsulate the essence of “Asteroid City”—an enchanting argument for the power of storytelling.

“Asteroid City,” distributed by Focus Features, releases in limited theaters on Friday and nationwide on June 23. The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “some suggestive material, smoking, and brief graphic nudity.” It has a runtime of 104 minutes and receives three and a half stars out of four.

MPA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Americana

What is “Asteroid City” about?

“Asteroid City” is a film by Wes Anderson that explores themes of grief, performance, storytelling, and the cosmos. It is a heartfelt homage to Americana and features a star-filled cast.

What is the rating and runtime of “Asteroid City”?

“Asteroid City” is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for some suggestive material, smoking, and brief graphic nudity. It has a runtime of 104 minutes.

When and where will “Asteroid City” be released?

The film is set to have a limited release on Friday and a nationwide release on June 23. It will be distributed by Focus Features.

Who are some of the notable actors in “Asteroid City”?

The film boasts a talented cast, including Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, and many more.

What is the unique stylistic approach of Wes Anderson in this film?

Wes Anderson is known for his meticulous attention to design and choreography. In “Asteroid City,” he creates a visually stunning and stylized world that reflects his signature aesthetic.

What are some key themes explored in “Asteroid City”?

The film delves into themes such as grief, storytelling, the cosmos, and the meaning of art. It also touches on Americana and post-war America’s emphasis on science and defense strategy.

Is “Asteroid City” a standalone film or part of a series?

“Asteroid City” is a standalone film and is not directly connected to any previous works by Wes Anderson.

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