Cannes 2023 Review: ASTEROID CITY, Powerful Play of Imagination

Wes Anderson's new film.

Contributor; Toronto
Cannes 2023 Review: ASTEROID CITY, Powerful Play of Imagination

It feels like Wes Anderson has been figuratively staging plays in his films ever since doing this, literally, in Rushmore.

Even his third feature, The Royal Tenenbaums, which fleshes out his first boy-genius protagonist, Max Fischer, into a whole family of brainiacs, though framed as literature to contain his own private Salinger-esque family of whizkids, still feels more like a play-in-spirit than a book. Margot Tenenbaum is still a playwright and her productions share an ambition with many Anderson forlorn genius kids before and after her.

It would, of course, be impossible to stage any theatrical production with as much imagination as he’s been able to bring to his keenly developed cinematic language, but 25 years on, Anderson is still finding ways to express his admiration for the theatrical troupe and the collective task of bringing unique heads together in the service of putting on one helluva show.

For this reason, I feel like his entire career has been leading up to Asteroid CIty, a film that is finally a literal play and a damn good one at that. While Anderson has had his fun romanticizing past eras before (as in the Yeye French pop world of Moonrise Kingdom, for one), with Asteroid City he is at his peak. using his fondness for the exploratory energy of the 1950s New York Actor’s Studio family to tell two simultaneous stories.

One is Asteroid City itself, the other you might call ‘the train to Asteroid City’. One is ‘the story’, the other is ‘what we talk about when we talk about telling the story’, and it’s simultaneously a tongue-in-cheek ode to process and a love letter to the group efforts of his collaborators.

The story of Asteroid City takes place in the desert where Nevada meets Arizona in a plot of land typically utilized for A-bomb tests. In the weeks in which our story exists, the land is host to a child genius convention, where the gifted unite to showcase their innovations, swap scientific ideas, and watch the stars above. Accompanying the junior achievers are an array of adults with varying degrees of baggage.

Though, in another life, it’s a convention that might’ve eagerly been attended by a Max Fischer, in this universe, a grief-stricken Jason Schwartzman, along with his similarly broken-hearted father-in-law, played by Tom Hanks, has graduated to the realm of sad dads, not unlike Rushmore’s Herman Blume. Meanwhile, the famous method actress Midge Campbell, who perhaps stars in the brave roles that in reality went to Carroll Baker, is a single mother with a disposition as sunny as Margot Tennenbaum.

One could easily kill paragraphs detailing the many remaining and very wonderful characters as well as the performers who both portray them in Conrad Earp and Schubert Grey’s play (Edward Norton and Adrian Brody as Tennessee Williams/Elia Kazan types) and also in Anderson’s latest film, but far more exciting than any individual character is the marvelous method in which Anderson is able to weave these elaborate personalities and play them off one another in a razor-sharp script that manages a screwball comedy-on-speed’s pace. There’s so much incredibly orchestrated overlapping dialogue that it would require multiple screenings to appreciate.

As per usual, the same dense detail applies tenfold to Anderson’s ever-interesting frames. While the making of Asteroid City plays out in a beautiful 50s black and white, when we enter the world of the play, few Anderson films are more colorful and inventively cinematic. Yet, although the haters and TikTokers will relish in enunciating the animated nature of the ever-elaborate Anderson style, what’s ultimately so charming about the film, beyond the fact that it’s just so, so damn funny, is its general joie de vivre.

This is a film that clearly loves its actors, as well as the collective goal of inventiveness. The film certainly loves its story, but not perhaps as much as it loves telling it.

Along the way, there are a host of new faces, including a slew of the greatest pee-wee performers and characters that I have ever seen. One may be tempted to pick favorites, like grown-up Max Fischer’s incredibly funny/endearing triplet daughters, but when you catch up with what looks like a 10-year-old Conan O Brien, or even better, a young cowpoke named Wyatt, you’ll give up any such notion of favoritism. Another note on Wyatt: this young lad acts as the frontman to the most side-splitting scene I’ve seen in an Anderson film since I can’t remember when.

Not since Alan Parker’s kiddie-casted Bugsy Malone has a filmmaker showcased so much genuine love for childhood curiosity and its fascination with the wonders of life. For many years now, Anderson has taken us into the lair of the extra-curricular-minded achiever, from beekeepers to underwater explorers, and now to space travelers. And although many of Anderson’s grownups have come to lose their luster for the stuff of childhood fascination, somehow at 54 years of age, Wes himself is as interested in the playful power of imagination as ever.

As for his grownup characters who have managed to maintain their youthfully curious spirits, you can find them bringing the dream of Asteroid City into the reality of the world stage. Let’s thank our lucky stars for still being along for the ride.

The film debuted in Cannes. It opens June 16 in U.S. movies theaters and June 23 in Canada. 

Asteroid City

  • Wes Anderson
  • Wes Anderson
  • Roman Coppola
  • Jason Schwartzman
  • Scarlett Johansson
  • Tom Hanks
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Asteroid CityCannes 2023USWes AndersonRoman CoppolaJason SchwartzmanScarlett JohanssonTom HanksComedyDramaRomance

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