I didn’t go into the theater earlier this month expecting an existential Matrioshka film, but it proved a pleasant experience throughout.
“Asteroid City,” released June 23, is director Wes Anderson’s eleventh feature film, co-written with Roman Coppola. The film is framed as a TV documentary about a hypothetical sci-fi play set in a retro-futuristic 1955 desert town – the eponymous Asteroid City. The fictional play takes up the bulk of the screen time, with cutaways to black-and-white commentary, asides and excerpts from its production history.
It would be a fallacy to say this is nothing like Anderson’s previous work. Rather, it’s everything like Anderson’s previous work and more – and that’s kind of the point.
The layers of the film’s framing give Anderson a strong excuse to raise the visibility of the artifice, a common feature across his films, but stronger in “Asteroid City” than any other with its stage-like practical props, scale model sets and roadrunner puppet. Its quirks and imperfections – such as the TV host (Bryan Cranston) appearing in the wrong scene – are woven in with an intentional and particular hand, lending an almost lo-fi quality to the film.
The structure lends perfectly to the story contained within it, which takes a typical Andersonian cast through the parallel stories of the fictional play’s actors and their characters – the latter grappling with issues of control and uncertainty in the wake of alien contact, and the former with artistic control and understanding.
The axis of the unusual tale is Jason Schwartzman’s double-performance as Jones Hall, an actor in the performance, and Augie Steenbeck, the stoic war photographer/father of four he plays. Throughout the film’s asides, Jones moves from an enthusiastic audition for the role to repeatedly questioning it and whether he’s “doing it right,” receiving more indirect answers from playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). Told that Jones doesn’t understand the play, Schubert Green simply replies, “Doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story. You’re doing great.” It’s only after a brief encounter with his cut scene partner (Margot Robbie) that he puts the central theme of the film to words: “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.” You can’t create great art unless you’ve made peace with what you can’t control about the medium.
For a filmmaker so known for his specificity of vision and attention to detail, “Asteroid City” seems almost metamorphic, as an embrace of the chaotic unknown and the peace of accepting that you cannot control everything – and of the emergent creativity and joy that comes with that acceptance.