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  • Colin Fraser


FOUR STARS Space cadets, soldiers, an actress and an alien arrive in the desert town of Asteroid City.


Starring Jason Schwartzman, Tom Hanks

Wes Anderson’s hyper-stylised whimsies such as THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL or MOONRISE KINGDOM aren’t for everyone. Fans of his rarified comic sensibility however, are in for a treat with off-the-wall eccentricity that is the bedrock of ASTEROID CITY. Truth is, he hasn’t deviated terribly far from the Anderson formula in this film which is packed with zooms and whip-pans, tiny models, huge stars, struggling fathers, troubled sons, rapid fire, quick-witted ultra-droll dialogue, telephones, young love and a heist. You could argue he’s been making the same film for years, which is arguably true.

Yet for all the familiar conventions, ASTEROID CITY does come with a very compelling difference and that is the onion skin he’s wrapped around his narrative. Keeping track of where you’re standing is the first of the challenges as Anderson breaks the fourth, fifth and sixth wall moving through a presentation of a play within a film within a reality with characters who are in two, three or four spaces at any given time. Moving back and forth as events unfold can be perplexing. As one of the leads says to no one in particular, I don’t understand what this is all about. Good call because most of the time we don’t either. I’m not even sure Anderson does but it doesn’t seem to matter - it’s all dressing for the main theme; you don’t need to know what it’s about, just keep telling the story.

And what a story. Set in a 1950’s fictional desert town, over-achieving science nerds, space cadets, their friends and family have come for an annual awards ceremony MC’d by General Gibbson (Jeffrey Wright). Being Anderson, the inventions being celebrated work - like a jet pack or a death ray, or projecting advertising logos on to the moon. The festivities are all going well until a close encounter of the quirky kind: an alien arrives and steals the asteroid after which the town is named. The President locks them down (good thing the General is on hand, this being the 1950s) and isolation takes its toll.

That’s the play. But as we learn one layer back, the playwright (Ed Norton) is still workshopping the story. The ending is unknown, but the telling must go on. We know this because, one layer back, the narrator (Bryan Cranston) is filling in all the details. Meanwhile, one layer back, the actors, in the real world, have other troubles which wash back and forth between the play (in wide-screen, sun-drenched pastel glory) and rehearsals (square framed, monochrome). Thus the narrative slowly takes shape with Wesophile’s exhilarated by the rattling way the story continuously folds in on, under and around itself. Granted outsiders will find the self-conscious styling all too irritatingly clever by half. However it’s unlikely they’d even get past the ticket counter in the first place.

Although earlier Anderson films like ISLE OF DOGS or THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS worked less to achieve more - this is so busy telling the story it doesn’t give you time to truly feel the emotional response - it does deliver in hundreds of little ways, like linking the disquiet of the human heart to the wonder of science under a half-finished overpass to nowhere. It's visual brilliance. It's Anderson.



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