Love, loss, life, death, mystery, wonder, growing up and growing old – rendered in multi-hued pastel colours against a world that exists solely and moves slowly, just to tell the latest story Wes Anderson wants to tell.
Like it is with the writer-director of whimsy, there are stories within stories in Asteroid City, literally and figuratively. Blocks build upon blocks, and while the whole might not be as clever and quaint as Anderson wants it to be, it always bears his aesthetic and is likely to satisfy his growing fandom.
Ostensibly, the film is about a TV show on the writing and creation of a play. But, that’s just the conceit to set it off, as the most and best parts of it are the play itself. Which, in turn, is hardly a play, and is exactly a movie in the way it is filmed.
The famed writer of the play is Conrad Earp (Norton), introduced by a TV broadcaster played by Cranston. Once we have that established, an array of stars turn up to essay small and big roles that follow – the real asteroid of this film.
The setting is Asteroid City, a desert town somewhere west of the Rocky Mountains with a 5,000-year-old crater as its distinctive feature. Around that crater have sprung up a motel, a diner, a motor repair shop, and a railway line that largely sees freight cargo trundle by – including everything from fruits and cars, to nuclear warheads.
The Anderson regular Schwartzman gets the lion’s share of screen time as Augie, a father and war photographer, who has brought his children to a star gazing event that is an annual feature of the town. While here, he tells his four children – an elder Woodrow (Ryan) and three young girls – that their mother passed away three weeks ago and he didn’t have the heart to break the news till now.
What follows is perhaps the film’s most genuine moments, as the girls process the information and an awkward Augie tries best to comfort them, while himself not believing the things people say at these moments. “Time heals all wounds,” is one of those lines, Augie tells the girls, adding: “At best, it’s a band-aid… Plus, you perhaps don’t see time as we (adults) do.”
One of the girls replies that she does – “15 minutes is 6200 hours”, proving Augie’s heartbreaking realisation of the yawning years which stretch ahead.
At another time, Auggie tells the children’s grandfather (Hanks) why he couldn’t tell them about their dead mother. “The timing is never right,” he says. Replies the older man: “The timing… is always wrong.”
The other character with the most meat is Midge Campbell (Johansson), a Hollywood star who has a point or two to prove about her acting with this play. While Anderson is only marginally interested in Midge as a person beyond the bare outlines, Johansson fills her with blood, sweat and real tears, her loneliness revealed in layers as she talks to Augie through the window of her cottage.
There are others filling up this melange, flitting in and out of the Anderson universe, each of them rendered with care, like every bit of the scenery in the writer-director’s oeuvre. But they do not really amount to much.
And yet, just when you think the fancifulness has gone too far, there is a stunning scene that defines Asteroid City – a shot of pure wonderment, stripped nearly of all fancy and striking right at the heart of all that we see when we look up at the night sky.
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The premise seems to be that nothing is the same after that, your world view jolted in or out of shape. One can argue whether Anderson follows through on that, but as the curtains fall, there is a definite shift in his characters.
“You can’t wake up,” as Asteroid City wants to tell you, “if you don’t fall asleep.”
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Asteroid City movie director: Wes AndersonAsteroid City movie cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jake Ryan, Maya Hawke, Rupert Friend, Liev Schreiber, Tilda SwintonAsteroid City movie rating: 3 stars
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