We open on a typical Wes Anderson pastiche: a symmetrical black-and-white image of a stage from the viewpoint of the technician’s booth.
Illuminated is our narrator Bryan Cranston, who breathlessly expounds on the film we are about to perceive: the televising of the play Asteroid City by a Tennessee Williams-inspired character Conrad Earp, as played by Edward Norton.
Earp gives us a quick setup of his recent work. The setting: a military town in the Southwest; the characters: families gathered for a science fair event alá Space Age; the problem: an alien visitation during a celestial event.
As the curtains draw up, we begin our tale.
Anderson’s ninth venture in film so far, Asteroid City might be his most enigmatic and strange. The story itself keeps getting intercut with the telling of its staging. But one interruption that is worth noting is that of Jones Hall, the lead, and Conrad Earp, previously mentioned, having a romantic encounter.
During the time period of the movie, set in the early days of plays becoming cinema and actors turning towards method, homosexuality was taboo and a career killer. Yet, the way Anderson directs these two is with grace and care, like he has done with his usual romantic stories. Even though Earp and Hall’s kiss is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, their passion is on full display and hard to miss.
Most of the action is like that for the movie. You turn your head and you may miss an important plot detail or moment. It rewards an active viewer.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about the play in question.
Jones Hall, performed by Jason Schwartzman, plays the role of ‘recent widower,’ Augie Steenbeck, who brings his son to a science fair in the titular township. He has yet to inform his children of their mother’s death, perhaps because he has yet to accept it himself.
Grief and how to process it plays a major part in this movie. Or, at least, that was my takeaway. Another cinephile suggested that the movie was about acting itself, or even Anderson struggling with his identity as a creative force.
But, I’ll stick with my interpretation, where we have a variety of examples, ranging from the director’s divorce to Earp and Hall’s short-lived romance to even Scarlet Johanson’s Mercedes Ford feeling stuck and under-appreciated in her career.
Grief pervades this movie. And interrupts our immersion. Perhaps, waking us up as an audience to start actively listening to these characters, regardless of our takeaways by the end. Here, in the age of Marvel and copies-of-copies, maybe a movie like Asteroid City is the type we need to give us something fresh and provocative. Something to reignite cinephile culture and appreciation of the arts.
It is impossible to discuss this movie without some semblance of spoilers, so I will leave it right there, for now, to let you all enjoy it for yourselves. However, I will warn you, dear reader, that this movie is built for multiple watches: the sign of any well-made piece of art.
Perhaps you will take away something more than I could through the beautiful absurdity presented. But I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed by the beauty and wonder presented to you, our humble audience.