Somehow this is already Junior Stargazer Woodrow’s third Wes Anderson movie.
Good movie, need to see again.
We’re told that what we’re watching is really a theater piece written by the legendary American playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). The film actually begins on a black-and-white television stage with the story narrated by a Rod Serling–like Host, played by Bryan Cranston. (So, really, it’s a play within a play within a TV production within a movie.) The Host reminds us that “Asteroid City does not exist. It is an imaginary drama created expressly for the purposes of this broadcast. The characters are fictional, the text hypothetical, the events an apocryphal fabrication.” In other words, the story itself is a phantom, unknowable … Late in the movie, Jones steps away from playing Augie and runs into the actress (Margot Robbie) who was to play the part of his wife but was reportedly cut from the finished piece. As the two recall the scene they would have had together, the Andersonian whimsy slips away to reveal a perfect moment: two people communing with the messiness of life through their memory of a scene that doesn’t exist, from a play that never happened, presented within a theatrical-cinematic fiction pretending to be a TV show.
Sam Adams [after making some connections to method acting]
Anderson’s not aiming for pointed or even coherent critique of the method, so much as to contextualize it as one style among many—perhaps a road to the truth, but not the only one … Fiction often seeks to explain the human condition, to offer answers to questions that elude us in our own lives, but Asteroid City refuses that mandate. Toward the end of the movie, we see the actors in the play attending a lecture by the teacher Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe), who instructs them to approach their characters from “the outside in”—the practical opposite of the method approach. Dafoe has worked with Anderson before, but he’s particularly apt for this part as a longtime member of the Wooster Group, the experimental theater troupe that rejected method acting in favor of having the actors “simply do things on stage.”
Asteroid City‘s closest relationship to the immediate present comes from its intricate echoes of Anderson’s own work, especially Rushmore: Augie’s wife is dead when the film opens, just like Max Fischer’s mom, as Schwartzman has aged from playing a single father’s child to the solo parent himself … What’s definitely new, for Anderson and for all of us, is the look of the widescreen narrative that makes up the bulk of film. Shot in Spain, Asteroid City‘s fully constructed American Southwest looks like Looney Tunes meets Red Desert, an unlikely and fairly breathtaking synthesis; I couldn’t even initially tell if I was looking at live-action, cardboard cutouts or some kind of weird and imperceptible layering of the two.
Royal Tenenbaum only needed a narrator, but Augie Steenbeck requires such an elaborate framing device that it ultimately becomes impossible to parse where he ends and the next person begins. And so it goes with many of the characters in a movie that never lets you forget that Scarlett Johansson is an actress playing an actress who’s playing an actress. But if the interstitial scenes in Asteroid City are destabilizing by design (in a why is Augie suddenly making out with a Kentucky fried Edward Norton? sort of way), you don’t need an airtight grasp on the mechanics of how everything fits together in order to be knocked flat by the effect of feeling it all click into place.
Anderson eventually collapses the film’s dual characters and settings via Schwartzman’s performance. Schwartzman-as-Augie leaves the Asteroid City set during its physical climax to return backstage where, as Jones Hall, he asks Schubert, the director, whether he’s playing the character right. Schubert assures him that he is, despite some “actorly business,” and to just read the story if he doesn’t understand the play. Immediately afterwards, he heads to a fire escape to smoke a cigarette where he speaks with the actress (Margot Robbie) who once played Augie’s late wife, standing on the opposite fire escape of a neighboring theater. Together, they perform their cut scene — a dream sequence between Augie and his wife that occurs on a moon of the alien’s planet — for themselves across a chasm of darkness. It’s difficult to put into words the complicated magic that arises from these two successive scenes. As a child, Schwartzman starred in Rushmore as the precocious teenage playwright/director Max Fischer, arguably the most autobiographical Anderson character; the conversation between him and Brody feels a lot like an older Schwartzman (or a grown-up Max) asking an older Anderson for guidance and being assured that he’s still doing okay, despite all the loss and confusion. (It’s also as if Anderson is using his once-younger surrogate to assure himself of the same thing.) Meanwhile, the scene between Schwartzman and Robbie speaks to Anderson’s late-era project, which testifies that authentic candor, about grief or real-world concerns, can arise from the stagiest settings: two “real” people perform a scene for no one but themselves, and in the process, transcend the confines of fiction and reach profound understanding.