What is the most recognizable element of Wes Anderson’s trademark style? Is it his storybook-like wonder? A vintage flair and the display of symmetry in his choice of cinematography? Many would point to his signature palette of pastel hues. So it is exactly that which he takes away in the opening of Asteroid City to subvert your immediate expectation. Rich black-and-white shot on 35mm film captures Bryan Cranston narrating on an empty stage in that old-Hollywood, mid-Atlantic accent and introduces our cast of characters like roll call to a play.
Wes Anderson’s bouquet of color soon does bloom after this introduction, but this reality separated by black and white that we begin in frames the film as an attempt at a meta-exploration of how the stage, actor, and auteur can transcend form.
We witness a play within a film, with most of the narrative we follow coming from the mind of fictionally renowned playwright Conrad Earp, brought to the screen by recurring Anderson collaborator Edward Norton. Fuck just simply breaking the fourth wall, this narrative method used throughout the film knocks this wall down and replaces it with a window into the mind of an actor.
As we weave through the events of Asteroid City we see the cast fluidly transform between stage actor’s discussing their own material to then actually becoming their character. Jason Schwartzman’s chameleon-like performance as Augie Steenbeck, an emotionally distant war photographer on a grieving journey with his four children, shows the extent of how a character can flip like a switch between roles. “Am I playing him right?” he asks in a plea for guidance late in the film. “I still don’t get the play.” A metaphor for fulfilling one’s own role in life, perhaps? One can meditate on the subtext that this narrative structure offers.
Wes Anderson has a penchant for presenting his films as storybooks brought to life. Chapter titles, scene descriptions, use of scale miniatures are all present in past works like The Royal Tenebaums, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But the framing of Asteroid City as an acclaimed play within the world of a film executes this idea of a meta production in its sharpest form.
Dialogue is tight and each line fits snug into the next like pieces to a puzzle. Familiar WA collaborators like Jason Shwartzman, Adrien Brody, and Edward Norton combine with Tom Hanks, Margot Robbie, and Steve Carell (replacing Bill Murray due to health conflicts). Of this stellar cast, Scarlett Johanson draws the most gravity in her role as the tortured Hollywood starlet Midge Campbell. Through the lens of Wes Anderson’s signature frame within a frame shot she rehearses her monologue from script within the locked gaze of Augie, and falls into her thespian character with brilliant command. She exudes a noire damsel, but one who needs no saving.
The desert is a beautiful canvas for Wes Anderson to play with, and he delivers on an experience rich with visual flavor that leads your eye on a journey. When Conrad Earp is asked the meaning of his play, Asteroid City, he pauses for a moment, cigarette perched in hand, before answering, “Infinity?”. Make of these themes what you will, but do enjoy your stay in "Asteroid City".