Following a writer on his world famous fictional play about a grieving father who travels with his tech-obsessed family to small rural Asteroid City to compete in a junior stargazing event, only to have his world view disrupted forever. (from IMDB.com)
Indie director Wes Anderson pretty much has created a genre all his own. His artistic style and color palette is unique to his films, and it’s quite easy to spot his work by even just a still from one of his movies. Most of Anderson’s films fall under the MPAA’s Restricted rating, but every once in a while, one squeaks by with a PG rating – like his two stop motion endeavors Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs – or even a PG-13 rating, like Moonrise Kingdom or this year’s Asteroid City. Now, on that note, I think it’s worth noting that the MPAA first slapped an R rating on Asteroid City until Anderson filed an appeal, winning the film a PG-13 rating. The reason for its R rating originally? Brief full-frontal female nudity. I’m not sure what’s shown would warrant an R rating, but the brief glimpse of a woman’s private areas literally adds nothing to the story that the viewer wouldn’t otherwise already get without showing nudity.
And with all that said, Asteroid City may be the quirkiest of Anderson’s films – that I’ve seen, anyway – to date. It serves as a play within a play (within a play?) where a narrator tells the story of a playwright who is struggling to write a play in which many of the characters in his world will be performing. However, we first meet most of the actors of his play as their characters in the Asteroid City storyline. The playwright’s tale is shown to us as a stage play in black-and-white, while the movie’s main story is shown to us in traditional, Wes-Anderson-colorized-and-framed fashion.
If that’s confusing to read, it’s because it’s kind of confusing to watch, too. The first thing you’ll notice about the main film’s storyline is how beautiful it’s filmed and composed. Anderson is at the top of his Anderson-y game here, with every bit of Asteroid City feeling like a pleasant feast for the eyes. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the movie is brimming – absolutely brimming – with recognizable talent. It seems as though, just when you think you’ve seen every notable actor you’re going to see, another pops up for the first time. But the movie feels a bit aimless and all over the place. After one viewing, I was left wondering what exactly it was I just watched? I don’t particularly like watching movies that are stuffed with so much pretention that I feel like you have to be a graduate of film school to understand it. It’s like walking in on a conversation built entirely around an inside joke and you have to kind of smile and nod if you don’t want to stand out as an oddball. The movie even ends at a point where probably most casual moviegoers are going to ask, “Wait… that’s it?” and they wouldn’t be wrong in doing so. The movie feels a bit scattered and unorganized. Fantastic Mr. Fox is a well-structured, visually delightful and unique movie experience. But it’s straight forward enough that it doesn’t jeopardize an easy-to-follow story for the sake of making art. Even Isle of Dogs and Moonrise Kingdom (and, for that matter, The Life Aquatic) feel like they have pretty cohesive narratives. Asteroid City feels like a puzzle that’s missing a few key pieces.
Still, Anderson delivers an entertaining enough film in Asteroid City, even if the story’s meaning might take a couple viewings to ascertain. All of the players are great; from Jason Schwartzman’s stoic, grief-stricken widowed photographer character, on down to Steve Carell’s sparkler-wielding hotel clerk. There are plenty of laughs scattered about too, but some of them are more so awkward laughs where you find something funny… but you’re not entirely sure you fully understand what’s going on.
Again, I’m no film school graduate, but it seems to me that the movie has one-too-many storytelling devices at play here. If Bryan Cranston’s narrator character stayed, the movie would have been strengthened by dropping the black-and-white playwright storyline. It doesn’t add much to the film, and feels more like a personal lament than something pertinent to the story of Asteroid City. The only real poignant moment it seems to deliver makes a statement about how sometimes important movie scenes are left on the cutting room floor for the sake of “running time” only. I definitely get that beef that Anderson has, and he makes a valid point, but other than a worthwhile scene involving an actor whose scene was cut from the “Asteroid City” storyline, I think the black-and-white sequence does more harm to the movie’s end result than good.
Overall, Asteroid City‘s content is pretty light. Aside from Scarlett Johansson’s character dropping her towel to allow a full frontal view of her nudity to be seen briefly in a mirror (and from a near floor-eye’s view), there is a sexual encounter strongly suggested when we see someone’s feet on a bed and someone standing over them in a flashback. In the playwright’s storyline, there’s a strange moment where Schwartzman’s character climbs into playwright Conrad Earp’s window – played by Ed Norton – and tries to convince him to award him the role of Augie Steenbeck. After Conrad acknowledge’s the actor’s brilliance, the actor takes off his pants – down to his boxers – and the two men kiss as the camera pulls back and the stage fades to black. It’s completely random and is never mentioned again. Profanity is quite mild, with 1 “g*dd*mn,” 1 “h*ll” and 1 “b*tch.” Spiritually speaking, the grieving Augie denounces the existence of God and Heaven, while Maya Hawke’s camp leader June prays with her kids. It’s such an odd and diverse cast of characters for sure. While Johansson’s movie star character, Midge Campbell, is trying to practice her latest script (with Augie’s help), we see her positioned in a bathtub with her head cocked back and a bunch of pills spilled all over the floor, to illustrate that her would-be film character had overdosed.
Asteroid City looks great and is filled with quality performances, but director Wes Anderson hasn’t exactly delivered a movie that is easy to process. Perhaps repeat viewings will peel back the layers to reveal something altogether deeper and more meaningful, but just one viewing has left my wife and I not entirely sure what we watched. I enjoy Anderson’s aesthetic and this incredible cast of actors, but at face value, Asteroid City is likely to leave many members of the audience feeling left out.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 6/27/23)
Blu-Ray Special Features Review
“Asteroid City” is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital. The Blu-Ray combo pack includes the Blu-Ray disc, a DVD disc and a Movies Anywhere digital copy in HD. Wes Anderson’s filmmaking style is most certainly a genre of its own – and definitely an acquired taste. I rewatched “Asteroid City” when we received the Blu-Ray copy and I did like it better the second time. Having seen the whole story the first time, seeing it a second time helps put some of the pieces in place. Despite that, however, it’s still a pretty quirky and slightly disjointed effort. I’m actually curious to see if further repeat viewings will help with that. Thankfully, it’s got an incredible cast, beautiful visuals, and relatively tame content (save for the completely random full-frontal flash from Scarlett Johansson and the bizarre smooch between Jason Schwartzman and Edward Norton).
The Blu-Ray disc and iTunes digital copy include the following extras:The Making of “Asteroid City” (7:26) – The only making-of featurette is a pitiful 7-and-a-half minutes long. What is here, though, is pretty good.
- Desert Town (Pop. 87) – Believe it or not, they filmed the set of Asteroid City on location in the desert in Madrid. They constructed the whole set from scratch on flat land. Anderson said it felt like a student film with no wardrobe trailers and stuff on location. I was surprised to learn that even the mountains in the background are actual gigantic set pieces created for the film!
- Doomsday Carnival (1:27) is just a montage of B-Roll footage from the carnival sequence.
- Montana and the Ranch Hands (1:15) is some short behind-the-scenes footage of the band performing on set.
- The Players (2:03) – Here, Anderson talks about the play within a movie and how they used two small local theaters to film the theater scenes.
- The Alien (2:23) – This is some behind-the-scenes footage of Jeff Goldblum in the costume as the alien and standing on stilts. We also see some of the stop motion footage used for the alien within the play.
- The Roadrunner (1:10) – Two men puppeteered the animal seen in the movie, while wearing green suits on any part of their body in frame. It’s pretty impressive, actually.
– John DiBiase (reviewed: 8/13/23)
Parental Guide: Content Summary
Sex/Nudity: Midge asks to rehearse a script with Augie, with both of them being in different bungalows, seeing each other through the window. Midge emerges from the shower with a robe on, and as she runs through her lines, she drops the towel. For a brief second, we see her full frontal nudity in the mirror (from behind her legs); A later scene hints that Midge and Augie spent the night together. We then briefly see a flashback with bare feet on a bed (the rest of the body is not on screen) and the other person standing nearby with someone else seeing them together through the bungalow window; Schubert comments that he’s been sexually compared to an animal, specifically a rabbit.
Vulgarity/Language: 1 possible “g*dd*mn,” 1 “h*ll,” 1 “b*tch”
Alcohol/Drugs: There is some drinking in the movie, including a vending machine that makes alcoholic beverages; Midge stages a scene from her latest film script that shows her sitting in a bathtub with pills all over the floor to illustrate her character’s overdose.
Violence: A character throws something, breaking a lightbulb hanging near them; Midge stages a scene from her latest film script that shows her sitting in a bathtub with pills all over the floor to illustrate her character’s overdose; A man purposely puts his hand on a hot grill, burning his hand (We don’t see the burn wound).