Take Me Down to Asteroid City | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Take Me Down to Asteroid City

The Wes Anderson dilemma

I struggle with writing about Wes Anderson movies after only a single viewing. Yes, it's possible to get a solid grasp of the themes and subtext of his films after seeing them once, but his frames are packed with so much nuance and hidden detail that there isn't a single Anderson movie that doesn't improve upon repeated viewings. Even if a film doesn't land emotionally on the first watch, it might wreck me on the second or third.

click to enlarge Take Me Down to Asteroid City
Photo courtesy of Focus
Scarlett Johansson luxuriates in the meticulous world of "Asteroid City."

For those who say Anderson repeats himself with each movie, I'mma say you're (no offense) objectively wrong and not looking past the surface details of color palette and mise en scène. I definitely get that his aesthetic and unashamed dedication to formalism is not for everyone, but Anderson has been evolving as a filmmaker in ways so subtle and microscopic that it would take a deep dive retrospective into his filmography to really be subsumed into the canon he has been painstakingly constructing.

I don't have room for that, but let's try to do a quick recap anyway:

"Bottle Rocket" (1996) This is the outlier because it doesn't carry most of Anderson's trademark idiosyncrasies, but still effortlessly combines a West Texas crime comedy with the iconoclastic existentialism of the French New Wave.

"Rushmore" (1998) To be young, brilliant and deeply misunderstood by all around you is one of Anderson's favorite themes, but Max Fischer (played by the instantly immortalized Jason Schwartzman) isn't just a representation of Anderson's own loneliness, but a synecdoche for outcasts everywhere.

"The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001) Still my favorite film of Anderson's, this is him unpacking the unrealized expectations we have in life, whether it's our disappointment in a father, our acceptance of the tenacity of loss or learning that waves of melancholy can be ridden forever, "Tenenbaums" redefined the tragicomedy.

"The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" (2004) Combining absurdest stop-motion animation, multiple David Bowie covers in Portuguese and a fearlessly unsympathetic Bill Murray, this was the first film of Anderson's career to fail critically, but in re-evaluation is seen as the result of his unchecked idiosyncrasies bleeding into influences like Cousteau and Orson Welles.

"The Darjeeling Limited" (2007) Anderson's most misunderstood film sees Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody as three brothers carrying their literal and metaphorical bag-gage across India in a quixotic search for an absentee mother who left them feeling like orphans. "Darjeeling" finds Anderson dialing his melancholy up to 100 while also opening himself up existentially to the unknown adventures and failures we stumble across in life.

"The Fantastic Mr. Fox" (2009) In what might be his funniest movie to date, "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" perfectly incorporates Anderson's style into the world of Roald Dahl, while also bestow-ing a sly profundity to a film that marries quirk and handmade humanity into something that feels like the cinematic equivalent of your favorite vinyl record.

"Moonrise Kingdom" (2012) Anderson at his most romantic, "Moonrise Kingdom" captures childhood love with nostalgia and tenderness, while also refuting critics who accuse his films of being hermetically sealed dioramas. With the framing and aesthetics still being very much his own, "Moonrise" still feels achingly universal in its textures, emotions and how it explores the unlimited limitations of youth.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" (2014) Here is where Anderson starts deconstructing the actual art and structure of storytelling as he builds a Russian nesting doll of a plot with a woman in the modern day reading a book written in 1985 about a story the author was told on vacation in 1968 about the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1932. In many ways, this is Anderson at his most devastated, reverting from the optimism of "Moonrise" into a heartbreaking ode to a great father in a time of war.

"Isle of Dogs" (2018) The one I've gone back to the least because, even as much as a futuristic dramedy set in a fictional Japanese city with talking dogs sounds awesome, this film doesn't marry Anderson's astonishingly bleak story to his influences as invisibly as he normally does. This is Anderson at his most bitter, which I'm not sure I appreciate as much as I should.

"The French Dispatch" (2021) Anderson's most whimsical film is also his first anthology, with stories ranging from the hauntingly moribund all the way to the deepest appreciation of the written word he has ever expressed. There are moments of pathos in the second story (the one with Benicio del Toro) more powerful and hard-hitting than anything Anderson has ever done.

All of this leads to "Asteroid City," which not only uses a meta textual structure similar to "Grand Budapest," but has Anderson's strongest work as a director so far. We already expect eve-ry frame to be meticulously composed, but the film also carries layer after layer of complex character subtext and stunningly unarticulated devastation. Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson find layers of performance I've never seen from either of them, Tom Hanks brings a melancholy poise that you can tell he's reveling in and Edward Norton once again proves that with the right material he can disappear completely.

This is in my top tier of Anderson's films as, just after one viewing, I felt like I was only skimming the surface of what he wanted to say. "Asteroid City" won't win him any new fans, but I hope no one will accuse him of repetition. Anderson's "style" is his voice. Just as Tarantino has one, just as Godard did. We seek out new books by authors we love because we're captivated by their voices. You might not like Anderson's, but that doesn't change the fact that it's stronger than ever.

Asteroid City
Dir. Wes Anderson
Grade: A
Now playing at Regal Old Mill, Sisters Movie House, Odem Theater Pub

About The Author

Jared Rasic

Film critic and author of food, arts and culture stories for the Source Weekly since 2010.
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