Style gets a bad rap. Imagine the most stirring script drably shot: it wouldn’t land. And think of how a bold filmmaking technique can elevate a barebones script. Indeed, style might be more important than substance. But the more likely answer is they are inextricable.
In Asteroid City, director Wes Anderson takes his style to new heights. It certainly won’t swing the Anderson agnostics: if you’ve been irked before, you’ll be irked again.
My biggest gripe used to be the emotional content of his films — or the lack thereof. “That’s style over substance,” I blundered. But now getting annoyed with this emotional flatness strikes me not just absurd, but also wrong. It’s like complaining that Tarantino is too violent, or Succession is too wordy.
Asteroid City keeps flagging up its own artifice. The main narrative is a play within in a film. Set in 1955, it concerns a vast array of characters converging on the titular city, a desert town located in the American Southwest, thusly named as it was the sight of a meteorite landing
Here, the military is testing nuclear weapons while youngsters arrive for a sort of Young Scientist award for “brainiacs”, the annual Junior Stargazers’ prize-giving ceremony. There is magnetism between two junior stargazers, Dinah (Edwards) and Woodrow (Ryan). There’s also a frisson between their respective single parents: Dinah’s actress mother, Midge (Johansson playing a character reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe), and Augie (Schwartzman as a wartime photographer). Augie has recently been made a widower — Margot Robbie plays his wife in a fleeting role in a film full of them — and Augie’s yet to tell Woodrow that his mother’s died.
Then, at the halfway point, there’s a seismic event: a visitation from a delightfully bashful extraterrestrial. A genuine sense of wonder seizes the film. Since this world is so resolutely artificial, the arrival of this stop-motion alien, though it wouldn’t look out of place in Wallace And Gromit, feels real because its continuous with this ersatz world.
This development is ironically amusing as Anderson’s characters act like aliens themselves. But aloofness doesn’t mean someone lacks emotion. The actors’ flatness of affect flies in the face of the usual over-emoting melodramas we’re used to. Beneath the hilariously deadpan surface, there’s a wellspring of emotion. Though Anderson ironises everything, it doesn’t mean these subterranean emotions are insincere. He refrains from signposting how we should feel. Even the strongest emotional beats are breezed past, and met with a Gen X shrug. The repressed characters sometimes overshare, but are emotionally undemonstrative. Their pains are incidental, but no less real for it.
Anderson’s comedies are about tone. They’re about world-building, not about building a film around one actor’s star wattage — this prodigious lineup of actors seems happy to fall in line for Anderson’s vision, however incidental their part is. I prefer Anderson in this wide-ranging register, with lots going on, like in his previous portmanteau, The French Dispatch, which, though it had its detractors, I loved for its overwhelming scale. Here, you get the scope of a whole community.
There are times when Anderson’s reach exceeds his grasp. The framing device involving Conrad Earp (Norton), the playwright behind this story, feels underdeveloped. Nevertheless, there’s a thrillingly anarchic sense that anything can happen: at one point Augie walks off the set to ask the play’s director (Brody) if he’s playing Augie right.
What with its obsessive detail and symmetry, this is quintessential Anderson, but, most gratifyingly of all, he’s still trying to outdo himself, taking his inimitable aesthetic to new reaches of his imagination.
Words: Rory Kiberd
Illustrator: Harith Mohd Farid
Director: Wes Anderson
Release Date: June 23