It seems with each new Wes Anderson project the distinction between the two halves of his films that are style and story, art and heart, aesthetic and dramatic become sharper. While I wouldn't say that throughout his nearly thirty-year career the auteur has ever been "great and terrible" as in one facet succeeds while the other fails miserably, I would say he's exercised a fair amount of "great and powerful" moments while also being unanimously "wonderful" in some fashion in most if not all his films. These phrases are obviously meant to allude to the character of the Wizard of Oz due to the fact Anderson has never felt more like the man behind the curtain than he does in Asteroid City. Opening with a live taping of a narrator discussing the writing of the story we're about to see unfold the framing and structuring of this venture will undoubtedly be too sophisticated for some viewers to grasp or too complicated for others to care about. While the story of the writing of the play the narrator is telling us about begins in September of 1955 the play itself takes place a thousand or so years in the future despite the traditional Anderson aesthetic that inherently implies the past. It's confusing, but not really a detriment to the experience as the battle, but more the integration between veneer versus reality is what fans of Andersons come to his films for. 

What hurts Anderson the most in the case of Asteroid City has more to do with the cavern between these aforementioned halves; the lack of said integration. The craft on display is top-tier Anderson, naturally, yet the emotional resonance fails to make an impact (pun intended) as the juxtaposition between the perfectly crafted world and the characters on the brink rings false this time. The key factor in this being that audiences are aware the people here are little more than characters; that what we're seeing is a performance rather than weighted experiences where a genuine insight or epiphany is taking place. That is what makes the less than handful of moments when the actors break while performing the play inside the movie because they recognize something in the context of the production that echoes a conflict in their personal life so exciting and enticing. Because there isn't enough real estate for Anderson to fully explore his nesting doll structure though, these cracks in the otherwise neat facade fail to leave much of a mark. There is no doubt the distance between the emotions the people and the characters are experiencing and the levity the visual stylings bring isn't intentional, but it almost feels intentionally broad so as to allow viewers to assign whatever meaning resonates most rather than Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola having a certain theme, truth, or thought they are explicitly exploring.

Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) possess different world views in the aftermath of their wife and daughter's passing.
Photo by Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions - © 2022 Pop. 87 Productions LLC

At first it seemed simple enough given the plotting of the play, that we might be dissecting different forms of loss and the ramifications of small moments in our wide universe then it shifted to more of a discussion on shared experiences and possibly how grief connects us which really derailed the brain train making me wonder if this was Anderson’s comment on social media or modern society a la the layers of how we present ourselves, the finding of truth in a world where people only seem to be making things up, not to mention the confusion of what to do with said truth when we’re confronted with it, but by that point the style was more specific than the ideas and I’d given up on connecting and settled for simply observing. And sure, interpretation is what makes art interesting, I get it. My qualm is that despite Anderson’s obvious charms the lack of focus, the intended distance, the sparsity of key elements – however one may want to phrase it – made for a less engrossing experience given the sheer number of ideas he’s operating in and around here. 

That isn’t to say the charms aren’t aplenty, Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson give honest to goodness performances (Jeffrey Wright gets an honorable mention), the children who play Schwartzman’s daughters steal every scene they are in, Alexandre Desplat’s score is truly magical and the single musical moment in this film is maybe the hardest I’ve laughed all year, as well as having Tilda Swinton just giving a masterclass in how to deliver comedic Anderson dialogue given every word she utters is flat-out hilarious. I do hope Steve Carell has the opportunity to work with Anderson again as I’d love to see him lead one of his films and I need to document somewhere that the stranger sitting beside me mistook Matt Dillon for Bruce Campbell, so I’ll do that now, but for as easy as Anderson’s films are to admire, I wish Asteroid City was more fun to enjoy.

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