Take a Vacation from Grief in 'Asteroid City' (2023)/Written & Directed by Wes Anderson/Grade: A+
Updated: Jul 11
Finally got a chance to see Wes Anderson's Asteroid City (2023) today. Well worth the wait! As the latest from one of my all-time favorite writers/directors, this did NOT disappoint.
The premise follows the events of a play being devised by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). In it, a grieving father named Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman, in quite possibly his best performance) travels to Asteroid City so that his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan, superb) may participate in a junior stargazing event. Along the way, they meet actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), with whom Augie develops a romantic connection, and her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), who falls for Woodrow. Meanwhile, Augie's kids also struggle to reconcile with the revelation of their mother's (Margot Robbie) recent demise.
Right off the bat, this movie is paced superbly. Editor Barney Pilling, acutely attuned to Anderson's screwball storytelling style, keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, allowing just the right amount of attention for each scene, each individual character beat, without ever overstaying its welcome. I was never once bored or confused throughout the 105-minute runtime.
Asteroid City is also easily the best-looking film in Anderson's catalogue since The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Adam Stockhausen's phenomenal production design made me feel like I had been transported back in time to the middle of the desert. From the characters' lodging, to the vehicles drove, it was like a cinematic fifties time capsule. This also lends credit to the costumes by Milena Canonero.
In addition, Robert Yeoman's cinematography, as well as the color grade by Gareth Spensley and Gareth Thomas, give this quite a distinctively vibrant look, even for Anderson's filmography. The frequent use of bright, contrasting colors lent to emphasizing the characters' struggles as they deal with their pain.
Speaking of pain, that brings me to my favorite part of this whole experience. The film positions itself early on as a meditation on the process of grieving. The deceptively bright visual style, the superficially detached performances, perfectly betray a deep sense of underlying sadness, as well as a reluctant urge to move on with one's life. Having dealt with a fair amount of my own grief these past couple of years, the plot resonated with me quite deeply. My eyes even welled up a bit. I wanted so desperately for these people to come to terms with their tragedy.
I also appreciated the framing device of the playwright who was actively putting this story together in front of us, as a means of working through his own issues. As an autistic person who uses cinema to help himself understand the world, and to guide himself through hard times, I think this aspect of the movie has a lot to say about how our artistic passions can prove to be the best therapy when we deal with a great struggle. That Anderson chose to frame his story this way makes me hold immense respect not just for this picture, but for Anderson as a filmmaker at large. I have a strong feeling this picture will prove much more crucial to his career than the very disappointing-and dull-The French Dispatch (2021).
Asteroid City is a rare example of a movie that I didn't see, but that I experienced. I was quickly swept up in it, and I adored the characters, craftsmanship and performances. As a work of clearly personal screenwriting and directing, it made me jealous. Finally, as a filmgoer, it gave me a firm reminder of why I go to the movies. Sometimes, you see something that causes you to laugh, cry, sit on the edge of your seat, that truly gives the sensation of having visited another world. There wasn't a thing I didn't like about this one. It is not only an enriching experience, but very clearly the year's best film.