‘Asteroid City’ Review: Our Town and Country (2024)



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Critic’s pick

In his latest film, Wes Anderson and his all-stars go meta with a TV show about a theatrical play that, in turn, is about a small town, U.S.A.









‘Asteroid City’ | Anatomy of a Scene

The director Wes Anderson narrates a sequence from his film, featuring Jeffrey Wright.

Hi. This is Wes Anderson. I’m the director of ‘Asteroid City.’ So this scene is near the beginning of our movie. We meet a general who has come to this town as one of the hosts of a gathering of young junior astronomers and scientists, kind of like a science fair in a meteor crater. And these are his opening remarks. The role was written for Jeffrey Wright, who I’ve worked with before and who I love. And what I thought is this character is going to come out and not just set the stage for this convention they’re doing, but more to set the stage for the decade. One of the sort of subtexts of our movie has something to do with how this placid period of the ‘50s is filled with anxiety and sort of these men with post-traumatic stress disorder that’s undiagnosed, that is being dealt with through their families. And by the time we get 10 years later, the effect that it will have had on the next generation will be so significant that there’ll be a complete shift. Anyway, that’s kind of a broad description of what’s in this little speech. “Chapter 1, I walk to school 18 miles each morning. Milked the goats, plucked the chickens, played hooky, caught fireflies, went skinny dipping in the watering holes, said my prayers every night, and got whipped with a maple switch twice a week. That was life.” We staged it in a way where it would happen in one shot, and it would be a performance like one that someone would give on a stage. And it was a dazzling thing to watch Jeffrey Wright take this scene and just expand it, and play it with a kind of momentum and also sort of a grandeur that was arresting to watch. Because on the day that we’re shooting it, I’m just the audience. “That was life. In the meantime, somebody else’s story. A man thinks up a number, divides it by a trillion, plus it into the square root of the circumference of the Earth, multiplied by the speed of a splitting atom, and voila. Progress. I’m not a scientist, you are. End of chapter 3.” The way we stage the scene, it’s sort of a complicated rig because we’ve got to start in one position, then we pull back. Then, Jeffrey comes to us, and then Jeffrey goes over here, and we go over there. And Jeffrey goes over here, and we go here. And Jeffrey goes over here, we move around side to side. And then, we push back in again. Well to do that, you’re either going to work with a techno crane or something that sort of telescopes and is a programmed remote head thing. Or you use what we use, which is a crazy set of sideways dolly tracks with a section of track that glides on the top of the three tracks. So you can slide forward and back and side to side, but it’s an extremely complex rig invented by our key grip Sanjay Sami. “To Dinah Campbell.” “It’s fueled by cosmic radiation instead of sunlight.” “For her work in the area of botanical acceleration.” “Unfortunately, it makes all vegetables toxic.” “The Red Giant Sash of Honor.” Then, we shift into him introducing us to the young people and what they’ve done, and they each get a prize. And so there’s a series of astronomical, celestially themed medals and badges and other kinds of things they get. But then, we see what each of these people has done. And I think they’re quite impressive, you know? I mean, from the perspective of real life, they’ve done some very good work, these teenagers, as we show in these scenes. [APPLAUSE]

‘Asteroid City’ Review: Our Town and Country (1)

By Manohla Dargis

Asteroid City
NYT Critic’s Pick
Directed by Wes Anderson
Comedy, Drama, Romance
1h 44m

“Asteroid City,” the latest from Wes Anderson, is filled with the assiduous visuals, mythic faces and charming curiosities that you expect from this singular filmmaker. It’s comic and often wry, but like some of his other films, it has the soul of a tragedy. It’s partly set in 1955 in a fictional Southwest town, a lonely four corners with a diner, gas station and motor inn. Palm trees and cactuses stipple the town, and reddish buttes rise in the distance. It looks like an ordinary pit stop save for the atomic cloud soon mushrooming in the sky.

Written by Anderson, the film is about desire and death, small mysteries and cosmic unknowns and the stories that we make of all the stuff called life. It opens in black-and-white on an unnamed television host (Bryan Cranston, severe and mustachioed) in a studio. Tightly encased by the boxy aspect ratio and speaking into the camera, he introduces the evening’s program, a “backstage” look at the creation of a new play, “Asteroid City,” that’s been made “expressly for this broadcast.” He then presents the playwright (Edward Norton), who rises from his typewriter to stand on a bare stage and present the characters.

The suited television host and the broadcast studio with its ticking clock conjure up 1950s live anthology dramas like “Studio One,” and you may flash on Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” when the host and playwright start speaking. Anderson quickly fills up the stage and the film, too. A train chugs in under the opening credits carrying a bounty of goods: gravel, avocados, pecans, John Deere tractors, plump Pontiacs and a 10-megaton nuclear warhead. Jeffrey Wright enters to play a five-star general, while Tilda Swinton shows up as a scientist. Tom Hanks plays a dashing curmudgeon; Adrien Brody makes the muscular theater director.

The drama starts soon after the playwright’s introductory remarks, except it doesn’t look anything like a theater production. It looks like a film, a meticulous, detailed, visually balanced wide-screen Wes Anderson one. There’s no proscenium, no stage, no wings, no audience. The blue sky stretches over the town; the yellow desert extends into infinity. The characters enter by car and bus, and are shot in long view and intimate close-up, beautifully framed by the camera. The palette is an astonishment, a dusty rainbow of hues. It looks like this story was left to bleach in the sun before being wrapped in transparent yellowed plastic.


‘Asteroid City’ Review: Our Town and Country (2)

The colors are mesmerizing and ever-so-gently destabilizing. These pigments signal that you’ve entered a new fictional realm that, like the television studio, is at once immediately recognizable and somehow foreign. The interplay between the familiar and the strange, like that between the theatrical and the cinematic, is a foundational theme in Anderson’s films, which, like most movies, look a lot like life yet are always different. What makes that difference is art — the voice, sensibility, technique, craft, money, luck and how the thrilling, terrifying mess of existence is gathered, organized and then set loose upon the world.

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‘Asteroid City’ Review: Our Town and Country (2024)
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