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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Asteroid City': Wes Anderson's Beautifully Meta Masterpiece

Every time a new Wes Anderson film comes out, people are quick to dub it "the most Wes Anderson film yet". As someone who has been a fan of Anderson for a long time now, I find this title reductive as it ignores the larger themes at play in most of his work. Sure, his films have a distinct style and look to them, but to call something "the most Wes Anderson" just comes across as disingenuous. I can't say I blame someone for making a comment like this, as the spectacle of Anderson's work is so iconic, but there is so much more to his films than the bright colors, meticulous production design, and unmistakable camera work. He certainly proves this with his latest work, Asteroid City. While it appears to be a loose, ensemble comedy on its surface, it is all wrapped in a meta-narrative about creation, storytelling, and its connection to our everyday lives. There are shades of ideas that Anderson has wrestled with in some of his more recent films (namely The Grand Budapest Hotel and The French Dispatch), but this film sees him engaging with them directly, and makes for Anderson's most potent film in many years. It's a film that feels somewhat alienating in how its narrative unfolds, but it is clearly by design, and the film as a whole comes together to make for one of Wes Anderson's best works yet.

The events of the film are presented as a fictional play by a playwright named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), with the play's narrative being presented in color and a widescreen aspect ratio, and moments detailing the creation and staging of the play being presented in black-and-white academy ratio. In the play, we follow a photographer named Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and his family as they travel to the small desert town of Asteroid City for a youth astronomy convention. While in the town, they encounter an eclectic cast of characters, all of whom find themselves stuck in the town when an unexpected phenomenon occurs.

There is a certain Brechtian nature to the film's narrative, as it uses the artifice of both its story and certain visual cues in a way that exposes the craft at play and allows the viewer to process the film's deeper themes. It's as if the style and substance of the film are fully intertwined, and work in tandem to fully tell the story Anderson is wanting to tell. This might be one of Anderson's better scripts, which is surprising giving how freewheeling the actual story is in certain moments. There isn't nearly as much structure to the overall narrative compared to his previous work, but this allows Anderson to feel a bit freer and playful while still employing his trademark style. On top of this, the film might be one of Anderson's funniest, as there are several moments that made me laugh all throughout. The back-and-forth between the events of the play and the "real-world" sequences might be disorienting to some, but that's kind of the whole point. Anderson is truly engaging with what it means to create, and the relationship between real life and fiction. There's certainly more I need to chew on with what all Anderson is saying with all this, but suffice it to say that I was deeply impressed with how he presents specific concepts, and how well it is incorporated in the film as a whole.

But of course, the most stunning element of the film is its cinematography. Robert Yeoman has worked on every live-action film Wes Anderson has directed, and consistently turns in great work, but what he does here might rank among his best work yet. The use of bright, stylized color is so arresting, and makes the world of Asteroid City pop. Furthermore, the use of light is also impeccable, giving the film a sheen that is natural in some moments, and purposely artificial in others. Not to mention that the black-and-white sequences are also incredibly well done, and give the film a classical feel. These contrast beautifully with the color sequences, giving the film such an old-school feel that hearkens back to retro-futurism and classic cinema. It is one of the most visually gorgeous films I've seen this year, and some of Yeoman's best work to date.

I also appreciated the production design, which melds Anderson's distinct style with elements of 50s sci-fi and the American West. The world of Asteroid City is rather small, yet it allows the viewer to feel fully encompassed in it. The specificities of the town are laid out for us at the beginning, and seeing how the characters interact with them is part of the fun here. Compare that with the black-and-white sequences, which feel more vast and open, while feeling more stagey than the color sequences. It's such a fascinating exercise in style that plays perfectly into the ideas at the core of the film, and is simply beautiful to behold. I'd also like to bring up Alexandre Desplat's score, which is rather simplistic compared to his previous collaborations with Anderson, but it fits the film like a glove and is quite inviting. There is a recurring motif that feels reminiscent of some of his past work, but also feels fresh in the context of the film.

The film's all-star cast also shines, with a fair mix of Anderson regulars and newcomers all turning in terrific performances. Jason Schwartzman is more muted than he normally is, but he really nails the more deadpan delivery and inherent sadness of the character of Augie. He is also great in the scenes that take place outside of the world of Asteroid City, especially near the end, where he shares a scene with Margot Robbie. Both Schwartzman and Robbie are fantastic, and their scene together is a major highlight of the whole film. Jake Ryan is perhaps the performance that surprised me the most, as he is such a natural fit for Anderson's specific style and humor. He has some of the funniest moments in the whole movie, and he has such a strong presence in this role. I definitely hope he pops up in future Wes Anderson projects, as he is so great in this film. I also really enjoyed Scarlet Johansson, Maya Hawke, Rupert Friend, Edward Norton, Tom Hanks, and Steve Carell in this film. But honestly, the whole ensemble is incredibly strong, and they are hands down one of the best casts of the year so far.

Asteroid City is definitely a film I'll need to chew on a little further to fully appreciate, but I am blown away by how much I loved it. It is perhaps the best Wes Anderson film I've seen since The Grand Budapest Hotel, and one of the most stylistically brilliant films he has ever made. Some will likely be put off by its rather loose narrative and the off-beat nature that accompanies most of Anderson's films, but I absolutely adore this film, and consider it one of the most poignant theatrical experiences I've had in a while. It is beautiful, funny, and one of the most fascinating meditations on creativity and storytelling that I've ever seen. This film has already burrowed its way into my heart, and is sure to ring true for creatives and Wes Anderson fans alike.

Rating: 5/5

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