Asteroid City: Outer West, by Scott Nye

“No hay banda!” the master of ceremonies memorably declares in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. “There is no band!” What he is referring to directly, and Lynch somewhat more obliquely, is that everything we are seeing is an illusion. The concert hall Betty and Rita are attending is run on a tape recorder with performers mimicking the actions that might produce the sounds. Nevertheless, a powerful Spanish-language rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” causes the two women – and, in my experience, many in the audience watching it – to do just that. The knowledge of the artifice hardly matters.

Wes Anderson has been experimenting with the edges of such distancing techniques for much of his career – The Royal Tenenbaums is an illustration of a nonexistent novel, to cite the earliest such example – but has grown more adventurous and aggressive in this pursuit over the past ten years. The nesting-dolls structure of The Grand Budapest Hotel once again points to a novel, Isle of Dogs communicates much of its Japanese dialogue via a translator, and The French Dispatch posits its anthology structure as a series of nonfiction works from a fictional magazine in a fictional French town. Time and again, Anderson reminds us of the falsity of what we see, only to (well, Isle of Dogs aside) still wring the tears.

Asteroid City represents his greatest such gamble yet, where he may have found the edges of reason. The film begins as the 1.33:1, black-and-white broadcast of a television drama, something akin to what would have been broadcast on Playhouse 90, here presenting the drama behind a drama. Bryan Cranston is our host, guiding us through the behind-the-scenes drama in the development of a new work by famed playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), titled Asteroid City. That work, about an ensemble of people who land in a small desert town for a national science fair, is then cinematically imagined by Anderson in 2.39:1 color as the main substance of the film. So, is Anderson’s film about a playwright, a director, and their actors? Is it about the small town, scientific development, and (the opening credits make this clear, so no spoilers here) aliens? Is it about the anthology TV series, and the speed with which culture is regurgitated as drama?

Naturally, it’s a little bit about all those things, though I confess to feeling a little unmoored by it all. In both the broadcast and the desert, Jason Schwartzman is our sort of focal point – to illustrate the structure of the film, he’s playing a TV actor who, in the context of the anthology TV show, is playing a theatrical actor who’s playing a role in Asteroid City. And we don’t know anything about that first layer. As the theatrical actor, he’s in some sort of romantic entanglement with Conrad, giving him an in to be the lead in the play; in that play, he’s a father of four who’s just getting around to telling his children their mother died three weeks prior. He’s not the only one in the desert who’s dealing with some manner of loss (repressed or restrained feeling being an ever-present theme for Anderson).

The full ensemble is too vast to account for here (I count twenty-three “name” actors, at least sixteen of whom have played leading roles before), and I often wished Anderson would have felt the same, as the desire to write at least one juicy moment for each of them has a habit of detracting from the emotion of the film rather than compound it. And while the company is all doing exceptionally fine work, I wouldn’t put their work here as among the finest hours for any of them, whereas his prior films have consistently done that for at least one of his actors.

Lest this review emerge too negative, in contrast to my more mixed reaction, I will note that Anderson seems to be the only mainstream filmmaker who seems to know how good Adrien Brody is, and Tom Hanks is joining the company at just the right moment, as he’s been diving deeper into discovering how much he can do with very minute changes in expression. Anderson feasts on that kind of talent, and there are slight maneuvers Hanks does here that are damn miraculous.

The film is always engaging, often laugh-out-loud funny (particularly in a new song that forms the film’s sudden musical sequence), and beautiful to look at. Despite enduring over two decades of lesser imitations, Anderson is never one to rest on his laurels, each film pushing his visual grammar a little further, always complicating what seems so imitable. He and cinematographer Robert Yeoman seem capable of seeing or creating colors we’ve never seen before. Production designer Adam Stockhausen, who’s been with Anderson since Moonrise Kingdom, continues to display a keen eye towards capturing something iconic yet completely distinct – describe a frame from this film and it might be any magazine photo spread or postcard from the era; see it and you’d know it is uniquely theirs.

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