Wes Anderson is known for making hilarious, if quirky and heartfelt, audience-pleasing movies. When he burst onto the scene with his second film, “Rushmore,” in 1998, he established himself as a presence in Hollywood, one with an unmistakable style and approach to filmmaking. Over the years, that style has mostly served him well, from “The Royal Tenenbaums” to “The Life Aquatic” and even to his stop-motion animation telling of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.”
With “Asteroid City,” his latest, he sticks with his signature visual mold while also offering a new iteration of his unique approach to storytelling. Alas, maybe it would’ve been better had he stayed fully within the box he’s created for himself, for despite the generally positive reviews, “Asteroid City” is a flaming dumpster fire.
Set in the 1950s and loosely centered around an astronomy convention for gifted kids set in the fictitious town of Asteroid City, the movie tells the story of … something. Spoiler alert — though even as I am a huge Anderson fan, I would not recommend watching this movie — toward the end of the film, the main character breaks the fourth wall, a staple of the movie, and tells the fictitious director he doesn’t understand what’s going on. Maybe it was just that he didn’t understand why his character had chosen to burn his hand on a tabletop griddle. I forget which it was. Either way, I was hoping for an answer, because I was equally baffled as to what I was watching.
The answer did not provide a key to unlocking the impenetrable plot — to use the word “plot” generously — and by the end of the film, I was still wondering what I had just seen, other than an hour and 45 minutes of Anderson’s distinct style.
As to the constant breaking of the fourth wall, the other plot device is that the movie is supposedly a televised play, so it vacillates between said play and behind-the-scenes scenes with the fictitious playwright, the actors from the “play,” though not as their real selves, and purported explanations about what’s going on in the play. If you’re confused at this point, watching “Asteroid City” will not ameliorate that confusion.
Watching it, though, will make you wonder why Anderson just doesn’t go all in and make an actual play. He’s obviously attracted to the medium. “Rushmore’s” cathartic ending centers around a stage play, after all. However, an actual play would prevent the director from employing what has become one of his signature moves, and one of his weaknesses: large ensemble casts.
While his first film, “Bottle Rocket,” wasn’t star-studded, “Rushmore” was notable for its rejuvenation of Bill Murray’s career, though the other actors in the film were not so well known. After that, it was off to the races, with each film getting a larger pool of stars. “Asteroid City” is no exception to that. And while it’s not necessarily a problem that he’s able to attract so much talent to his productions, the cavalcade of stars makes it feel, well, like Jackie Gleason’s “Cavalcade of Stars.” The difference is Gleason was producing a variety show while Anderson is attempting to make cohesive films, with those attempts proving less successful as more and more A-list talent sign on for roles.
Another problem, and one that explains why he’s able to call dozens of stars and get them to all perform in his next release, is that his previous successes set the bar higher for “Asteroid City.” Were it his first or second film, I might have judged the bizarre tale of responses to grief — if Google is to be believed with regard to what “Asteroid City” is about — more generously. There’s also the chance that he would have been forced into another career altogether, as the more likely option is that the film would star a bunch of up-and-coming actors, been released straight to DVD, if made at all, and I would have no idea who he is.
It brings to mind Barstool Sports’ Dave Portnoy, specifically his reviews of pizza places. Love him or hate him, when Portnoy does pizza reviews, he doesn’t do equity. He makes “strength of schedule” make sense, ranking pies on how good they should be because of the conference in which they play. Pizzas in New York or New Haven are held to a higher standard than ones in Boise, Idaho, for example, and he scores them accordingly.
If “Asteroid City” were Anderson’s first film, and not the work of a highly celebrated filmmaker with decades of success, its ranking might possibly be a 7.3, the current Rotten Tomatoes rating, adjusted from percentage form. That’s not how to judge a filmmaker of Anderson’s caliber, though. When you normally crank out 8- and 9-plus scores and throw down the doughy garbage that is “Asteroid City,” you don’t get to just slide to 7.3. Instead, you have to take the 4.1 and the loss, which is how the film should be scored.
On the other hand, though, maybe the film’s true meaning is held in the story of one of its non-star characters, Woodrow, one of the young astronomers gathered in Asteroid City. At the end of the film, even though the projection device he invented for a competition for the young astronomers’ convention was the least impressive, he ends up walking away with the grand prize: a check for $5,000.
Anderson, too, is getting his check, despite the film being his least impressive. “Asteroid City’s” box office scored the highest opening weekend for any of his movies. With a budget of $25 million, it’s projected to gross somewhere in the neighborhood of $7-8 million. So, maybe the movie is a victory, at least for him, for his stature convinced not just a cavalcade of stars to take parts, but also a lot of us regular folks to shell out some cash to spend a few hours trying to make sense of what went on in a fake televised play in a fake desert town in a fake show of brilliance.