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Film Review: “Asteroid City” Is Narratology At Its Best

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 21st, 2023

Film poster: “Asteroid City”

Asteroid City (Wes Anderson, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.

The director Wes Anderson has been going strong now for nigh on 30 years, starting with his first feature, Bottle Rocket, in 1996, and continuing through his latest, Asteroid City. Known for his whimsical mise-en-scène (which detractors might call “twee”) and meticulously crafted production design, Anderson may have a distinctive aesthetic, but mixes and matches genres to suit a particular movie (becoming, in fact, a genre unto himself). Not everything he makes lands with equal impact, but Asteroid City proves one of his most effective efforts in years.

It’s a film about finding connections and meaning through the power of scripted drama and storytelling. As such, the movie is therefore extremely self-reflexive, the many layers folding in on themselves time and again. That meta quality is nothing new to Anderson (think The Grand Budapest Hotel, among other works), but here the method is used to comment on the very act of creation, itself, thereby raising the quality of the enterprise to a whole new level.

l-r: Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman, and Tom Hanks in ASTEROID CITY ©Focus Features

Asteroid City is also a pure joy to savor, each scene a delight. As always the cast is vast, filled with fine performances in even the smallest of parts. Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic World: Dominion) may appear on screen for all of a few seconds, but he makes them count. The rest of the ensemble includes Anderson regulars and newcomers, alike, among them Adrien Brody (See How They Run), Steve Carell (Battle of the Sexes), Bryan Cranston (Last Flag Flying), Tom Hanks (A Man Called Otto), Maya Hawke (Netflix’s Stranger Things series), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Edward Norton (Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery), Jason Schwartzman (There There), Tilda Swinton (The Dead Don’t Die), Jeffrey Wright (The Batman), and so many, many more.

The story begins in a broadcast studio, which then becomes a theater stage, and afterwards a Technicolor movie, all of it set in the nuclear age of 1955. Anderson loves to play with aspect ratios and palettes, jumping around from 4:3 to widescreen, black-and-white to vivid rainbows. Cranston is our narrator in the first part, introducing us to a playwright played by Norton, who leads us into the filmed teleplay headlined by Schwartzman, whose character, Augie Steenbeck, is en route to the titular location with his children in tow. His eldest, a boy named Woodrow (Jake Ryan, Age of Summer), is one of a select group of teen geniuses whose scientific inventions are to be honored at the site of a famous meteor crash.

Scarlett Johansson in ASTEROID CITY ©Focus Features

That’s just the barebones framework. Other children arrive, accompanied by their own parents, one of whom is a famous actress played by Johansson, and soon they are all forced to cohabitate in the local motel (run by Carell) after an unexpected event puts them on lockdown. As we go, Anderson cuts back and forth between the various planes of the narrative (studio, theater, film), constantly reminding us of the artifice of the endeavor. And yet, construct thought it may be, Asteroid City traffics in profound truths.

At one point, Steenbeck (whose name is a lovely reference to the flatbed film-editing tables beloved by folks, like Anderson, who still shoot on celluloid) admits to Brody’s Schubert Green, a fellow actor within the drama, “I still don’t understand the play,” to which Green replies, “That’s OK. Just keep telling the story.” We are creatures of myth, enveloped in the wonders of plot development, mysterious as it sometimes seems. Metaphysical significance emerges from the organization of details into systems. In Asteroid City, there are many possible configurations to choose from, but they all lead back to this: the story is the thing.

l-r: Steve Carell, Aristou Meehan, and Liev Schreiber in ASTEROID CITY ©Focus Features

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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