Frame up: Jason Schwartzman in Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’.
ASTEROID CITY *1/2 (105 minutes) M
The competition might be stiff but Asteroid City is, frame for frame, the most beautiful-looking film yet from writer/director Wes Anderson. The French Dispactch and The Grand Budapest Hotel were gorgeous to behold, but Asteroid City is in a league beyond.
Unfortunately – very unfortunately – Asteroid City is also Wes Anderson’s most boring film to date, a most dubious double achievement.
As lovely as the look of the film is, Asteroid City is a compendium of meandering digressions, aimless vignettes, dry performances and wet witticisms that make it a very unengaging and dull outing.
Set mostly in 1955 at an Arizona desert tourist spot built around a perfectly circular 5000-year-old meteorite crater, the film’s look is an eye-pleasing celebration of heightened period detail, its signage, decor, costumes, cars and landscape resplendent in a gleaming palette dominated by primary colours and vivid use of perspective.
The signature cinematography frames the action with exacting compositions and precise camera moves, giving many shots the appearance of still photographs that happen to move.
These colour scenes are in filmed in glorious widescreen ratio (mostly), while the black-and-white sequences are shot in the square academy format.
As a visual work of art, Asteroid City is just gorgeous to look at, a triumph of costuming, set design and cinematography. It’s eye candy and it’s delicious. Yum yum.
Regrettably, welded to Wes Anderson’s distinctive visual style is his signature storytelling style – stately, stilted, unfocussed and so preoccupied with quirks and digressions than you soon find yourself disengaged with the characters as they move through the intricately composed frames, delivering dialogue in the unmodulated manner that has become part of Anderson’s cinematic signature.
So what we end up with is what we usually end up with: namely, a visually beautiful film with a discursive narrative full of quirks and pre-occupied with stylistic posturing than storytelling.
The basic scenario involves the annual gathering of high school science wizzes at the small tourist hub at the crater. In a ceremony conducted by the five-star general (Jeffrey Wright) overseeing the local atom bomb tests, they demonstrate their various inventions.
Among the parents are actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) who, at the urging of his father-in-law (Tom Hanks) must inform his four children about how their mother passed on some three weeks earlier.
The events at the locale are wrapped in the conceit established in the black-and-white opening sequence that what we are watching is, in fact, the visualisation of a successful play.
So we get a host of sub-stories where we meet the author of the play (Edward Norton), its director (Adrien Brody), the actors playing the characters, even an actor who was cut (Margot Robbie) who is in a play in an adjascent theatre.
So, yes, lo and behold, Asteroid City is the latest in a long line of 21st century films to embrace the “meta” concept of self-referencing and self-awareness.
God, this new-found trope has gotten tired fast.
The self-referencing schtick hit its peak on film with Adaptation and on TV with shows such as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Each demonstrated how the key to going meta is to keep from going over the line into self-awareness that you’ve gone meta, which ruins the whole effect.
Asteroid City makes that mistake. It’s self-congratulatory and quite dreary.
It would usually go without saying that those who have acquired the taste for Wes Anderson would love Asteroid City to pieces.
Yet those select fans who perceive his style as being richly aesthetic and counter-Hollywood might find the going here as dry as the desert in which the story occurs.
As usual Anderson has assembled an impressive coterie of collaborators, and as usual a great cast flounders in a wildly unfocussed story.
We get straight-faced work from Jason Schwartzman, Tom Hanks, Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Bryan Cranston, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon and Willem Dafoe, with the ubiquitous Margot Robbie popping up for a meaningless cameo.
The faint hope is that Anderson will one day soon match his extraordinary visual style with storytelling skills that weren’t so ordinary.
Perhaps he should do a film that speaks only through images and without words. Just trying to help.
Open Thursday 10 August