erik lundegaard


Friday January 19, 2024

Movie Review: Asteroid City (2023)


My wife and I watched “Asteroid City” last September and came away disappointed. “Didn’t quite get that,” was the general feeling.

I recently watched it again hoping for a different reaction.


Junior stargazers
What’s the point of the story within the story within the story? Why does it have to be a kind of documentary, with an Edward R. Murrow-esque narrator (Bryan Cranston), talking about playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and his final play, which is … this movie? How do the extra layers add anything? For me, they mostly detract. They confer artificiality—that Wes Anderson staple. Maybe that’s why he wanted them.

Right, he does this a lot. The three stories of “The French Dispatch” are three stories from The French Dispatch. In “Grand Budapest,” the story of Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave F. is told through F. Murray Abraham’s Mr. Moustafa. Etc. But this felt a frame too far for me.

The desert town of Asteroid City, pop. 87, hosts an annual Junior Stargazers convention during the coldest part of the Cold War. Atom bombs are detonating in the distance (to shrugs), the military is there to encourage young minds (to beat the Russians), while the townsfolk try to make do. There’s a mechanic (Matt Dillon), who doesn’t seem to be cheating anyone, and a motel manager (Steve Carell), who is selling real estate via vending machines. They are two of the 87. There’s also a diner.

Into this sleepy berg, family station wagon sputtering and clanking and breaking down, come the Steenbecks: father Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer; eldest Woodrow (Jake Ryan), a Junior Stargazer; and the three daughters, who come off like the witches of “Macbeth,” all toil and trouble. Augie had planned on stopping at Asteroid City for Woodrow, then driving on to California and the estate of Augie’s father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), but the car trouble necessitates Stanley coming there, which he’s not happy to do. Particularly since Augie has put off his fatherly duty of telling the kids their mother died two weeks earlier. 

Another Junior Stargazer is Dinah (Grace Edwards), whose mother is movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). Midge would like respite from the noise and the crowds but gawkers still prevail—star gazers, you could say—even if they’re deadpan stargazers like Augie, who takes a photo of Midge from across the diner. They have bungalows opposite each other, and from open windows flirt in that deadpan Wes Anderson manner. In this way, they draw closer.

I like how all the men, even the self-assured Stanley Zak, buckle a bit in Midge’s presence. This bit made me laugh out loud:

Midge: I do a nude scene. You want to see it?
[Long pause]
Augie: Huh? Did I say yes?
Midge: You didn’t say anything.
Augie: Uh, I mean yes. My mouth … My mouth didn’t speak.

Their junior counterparts, Woodrow and Dinah, also draw closer. All the pretty girls like all the smart boys in Wes Anderson’s world.

You know how young couples become friends through the children? The movie is a bit like that. We meet the families through the Junior Stargazers—though none as well as Augie and Midge. There’s a nice scene where five of our JSes play a memory game around a table. You have to repeat the names that each person has mentioned before adding your own: Cleopatra leads to Jagadish Chandra Bose leads to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek leads to Paracelsus, etc. Most names are long, international, and science-based. I would be out in the first round but they play for days.

The only other real standout among the kids is Clifford (Aristou Meehan), whose bit is to say “Dare me?” and, when no one does, to do the thing anyway. Liev Schrieber plays his father, J.J. Kellogg, a curmudgeon in a porkpie hat, who finally has enough and asks his son the meaning of these dares. It’s a poignant scene. The boy, seeming to reflect on it for the first time, says, “Maybe it’s because I’m afraid, otherwise, nobody will notice my existence … in the universe.” It’s like he recognizes its truth as he's saying it; for the first time he’s wholly vulnerable. His father, too, is touched, and for once agrees to play the game. “Dare you what?” he says. “Climb that cactus out there,” the boy says, pointing. “Lord, no, no,” the father says.

I would’ve liked more of a focus on these families rather than the frame-within-the-frame-within-the-frame. Most of the characters orbit each other from a distance, curious but wary. We’re all junior stargazers.

The muchness
I guess the place is called Asteroid City because an asteroid crash-landed there at some point, and they’re there on its anniversary, and during the celebration, led by Gen. Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), an alien arrives to take the asteroid. That happens about halfway through, and leads to a military quarantine of the place. Everyone is stuck there, but the JSes band together to get word out.

Wes immerses us in all the 1950s Southwest-specific bric-a-brac: from A-bomb tests to road-runners. Apparently he’s said that the quarantine idea wouldn’t have happened without our own COVID-19 version, but our version didn’t involve escapades, and anyway, for me, the alien and the quarantine detracts from everything else: the orbiting, and the curiosity, and the dares. The humanity.

Also detracting is just the wealth of characters and talent in the room. I haven’t mentioned half of them. Maya Hawke plays a young schoolteacher leading kids on a field trip, and Rupert Friend plays a singing cowboy interested in her, and not orbiting at all but actually dancing. Tilda Swinton is a scientist, Willem Dafoe is a German acting teacher with maybe two lines, Margot Robbie plays an actress who had the part of Midge before Mercedes Ford (also Johansson), and who, across balconies, has a scene with Jones Hall, the actor playing Augie (also Schwartzman). It’s the muchness of it all that detracts. I wanted Wes to focus. But all the stars came out.

Posted at 08:36 AM on Friday January 19, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023