The Play’s the Thing — Asteroid City

William J Hammon
9 min readJun 21, 2023

Back in 2006, filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan released what is arguably his worst movie, Lady in the Water. Derided for being incredibly self-indulgent, the project was rightly lambasted for Shyamalan’s sanctimonious take on art, writing, and criticism, in which he essentially staged a cinematic hissy fit due to negative reactions to his previous work. He cast himself as a self-sacrificing writer who agrees to go on with his work, knowing that it will result in his death but inspire great leaders of men (it’s still hilarious to say it out loud), and hired Bob Balaban to play a joyless, cynical film critic, who is notably the only character to get killed off due to his totally ironic misinterpretation of “true” art.

It’s almost laughable how pompous and egotistical this is, but as some have noted, it’s also, in its own way, peak Shyamalan, because even when he’s at his worst, like in this movie, his work is always a statement of purpose for his view of cinema, often a defiant one. As terrible as it was, Lady in the Water was his way of saying, “I don’t care what you think. I’m going to make the movies I want to make, and if you don’t like it, fuck off.” While it’s not the best attitude to have, I can certainly respect and appreciate it, even if I’m doing so while shaking my head at how badly it turns out (see: Cabin, Knock at the).

This is to say that Night has a signature style all his own, consequences and critical reception be damned. The same can be said for Wes Anderson, quite possibly the most recognizable modern auteur as far as visual filmmaking is concerned. And his latest picture, Asteroid City — released on six screens nationwide last weekend ahead of a full rollout on Friday — can arguably be described as his version of Lady in the Water. This is not to say the movie is bad, far from it actually, but more that this newest work stands as Anderson’s statement of purpose, acknowledging past feedback and declaring his intentions going forward.

Starring his stalwart regulars (including Bob Balaban!), this film is textbook Anderson, with all the highs and lows that such a statement would imply, and just like his usual output, your mileage will almost certainly vary depending on your tolerance for his usual shtick. I’ve gone on record multiple times as being on a case by case basis for his work, and for me, this is definitely on the better side of things, but I can absolutely understand if someone sees this film and thinks it’s just another tired exercise in pretentious whimsy for its own sake.

Framed as a play-within-a-play-within-a-TV-broadcast, the film is introduced in 4:3 black and white with Bryan Cranston hosting a dramatization of the behind-the-scenes drama surrounding the stage production of Asteroid City, a fictitious story about a fictitious alien encounter in the American desert in the 1950s. This is the first example of Anderson commenting on his own quirks, as Cranston narrates that no one is interested in watching a man type for two hours while focusing on playwright Conrad Earp, played by Edward Norton. This appears to be a direct reference to the creative but woefully boring French Dispatch, which was pretty much just about writers reading their own work as they typed it out. He’s acknowledging the earlier misstep while also outright engaging in the trope, but it’s not in a mean-spirited way, more a winking bit of self-awareness, which goes a long way towards making the following 100 minutes not only palatable, but at times downright charming.

Still, the real meat is in the actual story, which takes place in a tourist trap destination where a small, orb-shaped meteorite impacted with the surface some thousands of years ago. On the site is a small roadside diner, service station, and bungalow motel run by a hilariously dry yet greedy Steve Carell. The first action sees Jason Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck arriving with his four children, “Brainiac” son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and three daughters, Andromeda, Pandora, and Cassiopeia (played by triplets Ella, Gracie, and Willan Faris), all of whom believe in some form of witchcraft or supernatural horror. This introduction is in itself another nod to the critics, as Augie, a war photographer who has the affectation of lighting a pipe with a metal lighter (which he fills by squirting gasoline directly from the pump), is very much a typical “bad father in a Wes Anderson movie” (his wife died three weeks previous, but he hasn’t gotten around to telling his children that their mother is gone), but Schwartzman also plays the character’s stage actor, Jones Hall, so his mannerisms can literally be tacked on or removed along with his tearaway fake beard. Similarly, naming the daughters after Greek mythological characters serves to make them esoteric as well as a de facto Greek chorus as they comment on events from the sidelines, even though their dialogue contributes nothing to the proceedings. Finally, the family arrives via tow truck, as their car broke down, yet somehow this was their destination all along, pointedly setting up the rather flimsy ways in which the entire cast makes their way to this town of 87 residents.

The ostensible reason for this convergence of characters, from the Steenbeck family to a school field trip (led by Maya Hawke), to a group of cowboys, to a Hollywood movie star who always plays abused, drug-addicted tragic heroines (Scarlett Johansson), is for an annual celebration of young scientists, including Woodrow, where they compete for a government scholarship overseen by a military science division, led by Jeffrey Wright in the film’s MVP performance. While getting to know the other candidates, including forming a romantic relationship with the actress’ daughter (Grace Edwards), Woodrow’s experience is rocked by the arrival of an alien (a stop-motion puppet in the main narrative but played by Jeff Goldblum in the broadcast segments) who absconds with the town’s titular asteroid remnant, leading to a quarantine of the area and stranding everyone at the motel for a week. This inspires Woodrow to collaborate with an astronomer (Tilda Swinton) on how to contact the alien to get him to return. Meanwhile, on the periphery, Hawke becomes interested in one of the cowboys (Rupert Friend), a mechanic (Matt Dillon) tries to repair the Steenbeck wagon, Augie’s rich father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks) arrives to take the family back to his home in the wake of his daughter’s death, and Augie himself begins an emotional affair with Midge the actress, taking pictures of her and running lines on her latest project from their respective windows.

All of this is inherently silly and convoluted, and that’s the point, especially when the bright, lively colors of the widescreen Asteroid City contrast with the drab greyscale of the TV show. It only gets crazier when the likes of Hong Chau, Adrien Brody, and Margot Robbie are brought in to portray the backstage turmoil and/or comment on it. The dialogue is intentionally stilted and monotone in the main story, ironically juxtaposed with much more passionate, emotional talk in the more conventional teleplay. The sets in Asteroid City are made to look patently artificial while still being immaculately detailed, the exact opposite of the spartan production design in the TV studio. It’s a deliberate set of extremes, a living cinematic example of Theatre of the Absurd, exacerbated when the likes of Cranston and Schwartzman literally break the fourth wall to invade each other’s spaces late in the film.

Again, a lot of your enjoyment will come down to your threshold for Wes Anderson’s various filmmaking habits. Sometimes they’re annoying, sometimes they’re brilliant, and sometimes they maintain a balance of being up their own asses but still charismatic. That can certainly apply to elements such as the soundtrack, the set pieces, the costuming, and the performances. But for me, the whole largely works, even in its more pretentious or superfluous moments (and there are quite a few to be sure, like the young stargazers playing a memory game about historical figures or one of the younger students in Maya Hawke’s class (Preston Nota) spontaneously coming up with a Christian Hoedown song about the alien). This is because Anderson demonstrates a larger than usual awareness of his own routines.

For example, he’s wont to center his frame on whatever character is speaking or moving in the moment, keeping the shots at tight 90-degree angles. He does that here as well, supplemented with slightly askew shots that hastily correct themselves to being dead center whenever they hold long enough for you to notice. Like many previous works, this film’s story is divided into individual acts with title cards, including subdivisions for sets of scenes, even those that aren’t thematically related. But in so doing, he’s telling us that it’s a joke we’re all in on, as the first act ends with an “option” for an intermission, while the third act MUST be run at full speed with no breaks, even though the stacked media formats interrupt each other.

All of this is fine because Anderson makes it clear that the overall message is one of recognition and independence. He’s telling both his own audience and the general public through this movie that he gets it, he hears where people don’t always engage, and he accepts the criticism. He’s okay with it, but ultimately he’s going to do his own thing and go in his own directions. He seems to genuinely hope that you like what he does, but he’ll get over it if you don’t.

That’s what separates this film from Shyamalan’s tantrum from 17 years ago. Because yes, there are flaws. Some of the jokes don’t land because the intentional delivery style doesn’t always aid the cleverness of the material. The ever-expanding ensemble cast is arguably too big this time around, necessitating focus and subplots for characters that don’t warrant the attention. The honestly great visual gag of having vending machines at the motel for just about anything (including leased land plots the size of tennis courts in the vast desert landscape) doesn’t really jive with the authoritarianism satire that carries most of the second act. Some of the performances are outstanding (particularly Hanks, Johansson, and Carell in addition to the aforementioned Wright), but others feel redundant (I love Tilda Swinton and Jeff Goldblum, but they basically have nothing to do). Even the underlying presentation conceit doesn’t quite work, as while there is a bit of comedy in Norton and Brody’s performances, the only part that really matters is the core story, which is a feature-length film on its own without the different levels of media.

Someone like Shyamalan, at least back in ’06, would have taken these notes and concluded that people like me just don’t understand his genius. Anderson, on the other hand, pretty much states outright that it doesn’t always have to make sense or fit into some cookie cutter mold so long as the spirit of the work is maintained and you’re able to have a bit of fun with it. That’s a much healthier attitude. Entertainment is by its very nature a form of escapism, and his films provide that odd sort of fantasy. Yes, there are nihilist cynics out there (I can be one myself sometimes), but on the whole, criticism is meant to be constructive. It helps an artist hone their craft to reach a wider audience, and it aids the public in knowing what is worth endorsing with their hard-earned money, because a creator isn’t entitled to success by the mere act of creation. Anderson appears to be telling us that he understands this essential concept, and that he’s confident in his skills to continue moving forward.

Is this Anderson’s best work? No. Is it a failure? Also no. Is it funny and occasionally insightful with some superlative production elements, particularly within the context of his particular oeuvre? Absolutely. Asteroid City is good enough, and it’s crucial that the phrase, “good enough” becomes part of the cinematic lexicon once again. It has great moments that outweigh the parts that don’t connect on the highest level, and that’s perfectly cromulent. Sometimes that’s all you need.

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Which of Anderson’s quirks is your favorite? Which ones do you despise? Let me know!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on June 21, 2023.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com