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ASTEROID CITY (2023, Wes Anderson) (Read 286 times)
Aug 29th, 2023 at 8:04pm

L.A. Connection   Offline
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ASTEROID CITY (2023) - ASTEROID CITY is Anderson's most intriguing live action film since RUSHMORE. Wes Anderson has gotten to the point in his career where his public image and trademark filmmaking tics are fully set. It seemed inevitable that he would turn inward and try his hand at his own Fellini's 8 1/2 style film within a film opus.

Bearing an outward resemblance to Andrew Patterson's 2019 VAST OF NIGHT*, the sci-fi-ish ASTEROID CITY's gimmick is that it's an episode of an old 50s TV show with a pseudo Rod Serling type host/narrator (here Bryan Cranston). The program is devoted to the staging of a new play written by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and directed by Schubert Green (Adrien Brody).

The play within the play is filmed as a garish widescreen pastel technicolor production (filmed in 35mm by Robert Yeoman) and starring Jason Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck. Augie has three children including a son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) who have traveled to this one meteorite town in the middle of the desert for a Junior Inventor's convention. A Hollywood actress, Midge Campbell (Scarlet Johansson), is also there with her daughter. Tom Hanks plays Augie's father-in-law who joins the family.

The retro 50s locale is a playland for Anderson and his Production Designer Adam Stockhausen who go all out in creating the faux town complete with a half-constructed highway on-ramp. The sets are like giant three-dimensional theater backings and set pieces pulled from the stage and plunked down in the middle of the desert. Beautiful to look at while also being intentionally artificial. The illusion isn't quite complete because Anderson insists on calling attention to his editing and camera movements. The 16mm faux newsreel footage should also have been in B&W.  One could charitably say it's a conscious choice on the filmmaker's part, but that's too cute by half -- even for Anderson. The filmmaker's wit has always been bone dry, so setting the film in an arid desert seems like the ultimate extension. Anderson breaks the fourth wall on a couple of very explicit occasions, but the effect is lessened because he's already pulled back the cape so early in the film. There are nods to such 50s topics as the Red Scare, Project Blue Book, Billy Wilder's THE BIG CARNIVAL (aka Ace In The Hole) and Marilyn Monroe. The retro stop motion animation of the alien is a nice touch.

Where ASTEROID CITY is most engrossing is in how it appears to be a deconstruction not only of how this particular production was made, but all of Anderson's filmography by implication. Long accused of devolving into self-parody, so it's interesting to ponder how much of hisscreenplay is actually an explicit commentary on himself. Unfortunately, one never loses the perception that Anderson's ego won't allow for deeper self-reflection. The autobiographical aspects always feel a step removed. Look, but don't touch. Examine. But, not too closely. A more self-effacing Director would have brought more joy and fun to the proceedings. Hence, ASTEROID CITY is stuck in neutral for far too much of its length, thought-provoking an experiment as it may be. It's fascinating, but so studied it becomes inert.

Schwartzman and Johansson are excellent, and the huge supporting cast is also spot on, with special mention to the youth cast who Anderson challenges by his highly specific dialogue. In addition to Yeoman's fine camerawork and Stockhausen's art direction, the costumes, makeup & hair -- Alexander Desplat's whimsical score is top notch.

The tagline to Terry Gilliam's (no slouch as a stylist himself) BRAZIL was: “It's only a state of mind.” ASTEROID CITY's is Wes Anderson's ode to his own. 

* VAST OF NIGHT is also set in a 50s desert southwest and involves alien visitation

ASTEROID CITY is currently streaming on Peacock and for rental. It's on DVD and Blu Ray.

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