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From Cannes: ‘Asteroid City’ Revels in Absurdity

Dir. Wes Anderson — 4 Stars

Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks star in Wes Anderson's latest film, "Asteroid City."
Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks star in Wes Anderson's latest film, "Asteroid City." By Courtesy of Festival de Cannes
By Millie Mae Healy, Crimson Staff Writer

Wes Anderson’s latest film is once again a visual masterpiece, a meta exploration of love, connection, and the creation of art.

Framed as a fictional play about teens and their dysfunctional parents at a “Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention,” “Asteroid City” opens by introducing the play’s writer and many of the fictional actors who will play the characters seen in the majority of the film. The actors playing major roles are never fully developed as characters — making the choice to begin with this protracted sequence a perplexing choice. Nonetheless, “Asteroid City” features a stacked cast, with multiple Hollywood stars appearing in minor roles and cameos, an ensemble that allows for a chaotic, engaging story. While some of the characters get lost in the off-the-wall hijinks, the large ensemble allows for complex, layered relationships between the main characters and a depth of activity on screen. There are constant running gags in the background of scenes, and though this at times becomes distracting from the convoluted main story, they deepen the characters’ relationships and the richness of the world onscreen.

The desert landscape of the titular “Asteroid City” is wonderfully oversaturated, with vibrant colors that add an artificial feel to this fictional meta narrative. Similarly, all of the wide shots are carefully posed, like action figures lined up for a photoshoot, creating precise tableaux that add to this level of curation. From beginning to end, the candy colors and careful blocking create a distinctive atmosphere that really sells the film’s main mission.

More than anything, the world presented on screen is captivating. Anderson shows an absolute disregard for the 180-degree rule as the camera pans in all directions at every opportunity, showing scenes from all sides and ignoring walls and other physical obstructions as the camera travels, confining the characters. These dizzying movements create a confusing sense of space, and wonderfully clash with the otherwise posed feeling given by the narrative of the film. However, although fascinating, “Asteroid City” feels much more like a commentary on a media like film than a play where the audience’s line of view is very much fixed.

In keeping with the visual storytelling, the plot is equal parts off putting and delightful. Though all of the main elements are laid out at the beginning like a feast of Chekhov’s guns, the winding and shocking paths taken to get there are certainly creative. “Asteroid City” is certainly concerned with style, and excels most when playing with expectations of story and film-making rather than at creating a strong emotional core. Truly, all of the characters are unstably drawn, making surprising, off-the-wall decisions, which is at times entertaining, and other times unsatisfying. Much of the film subscribes to this kind of off kilter scene work, with surprising and sometimes illogical dialogue, reactions, and transitions. This approach offers much to interest, but less to affect. Though there are several resonant throughlines and callbacks throughout the movie that keep the train running, they often run the danger of being obscure. To help balance this, characters sometimes spell out their feelings to keep the viewer onboard, hurting the film’s sense of spectacle without adding much to the plot.

Some of the most endearing moments of the film come from the youngest characters. All of the genius teenagers in the invention competition, depicted as out-of-touch nerds who have finally found companionship among equally zany young people, are entertaining in every scene they have together, and the budding romance between Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and Dinah (Grace Edwards) is particularly heartening and grounding. Similarly, the silly and melancholic scenes centering war photographer Augie’s (Jason Schwartzman) three daughters, and their struggle to accept their mother’s death particularly stand out.

Naturally, given the film’s central theme about the power of love, romance is in the air. Augie’s offbeat whirlwind relationship with actress Midge (Scarlett Johansson) is memorable and interesting, especially in light of the frame narrative moments between their actors that complicate their surprising interactions, but is much less warm than the blooming relationship between their children Woodrow and Dinah. Other romances featured are sweet, but are more successful at pairing off characters in the large cast than being memorable.

The story’s heart lies in the metanarrative and its sense of yearning. Though this doesn’t provide clarity, it does provide a much-needed bedrock to the hijinks of the main plot. “Asteroid City” is definitely emotionally arresting, though at times it is unclear why. It is a film to puzzle, to dazzle, and a joyful if perplexing ode to cinema and storytelling.

—Staff writer Millie Mae Healy can be reached at milliemae.healy@thecrimson.com.

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