‘Asteroid City’ hits our cinemas this month, and it’s a must-see
This week, our film columnist Hanna Flint pays homage to Wes Anderson’s ability to use dead-pan humour in grappling with the messiness of humanity
Saturday 1 July 2023 By Hanna Flint
The movies of Wes Anderson might appear frothy and irreverent enough to be memed on TikTok, but that doesn’t mean he’s all style over substance. With each new Anderson installment, in fact, you have to admire his canny ability to use dead-pan humour to grapple with the messiness of humanity.
My first introduction to his oeuvre was via the private-school comedy, Rushmore. The excellent 1998 film – co-written by Owen Wilson – not only established Anderson as a filmmaker with an idiosyncratic voice and distinct cinematic aesthetic, but also his commitment to telling stories about grief, loss and dysfunctional families. The peril of ambivalent fatherhood is exemplified by Bill Murray’s Herman Blume, a selfish businessman who dislikes his identical twin sons, but becomes a mentor-frenemy to their eccentric classmate Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman).
Later, The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and Fantastic Mr. Fox would more explicitly contend with disastrous dads and absent papas, yet each having a distinct world for these heightened characters to assemble in. Fantastic Mr. Fox, inspired by Roald Dahl’s children’s story, is a particularly fun examination of trying to be noticed by your fantastic but egocentric father, while also learning to live authentically as your own fantastic self.
You have to wonder what Anderson’s own dad would have made of his movies, given how frequently he presents fathers as flawed antiheroes whose selfishness and emotional distance often adversely stunts the childhood of their offspring. Asteroid City – his latest and 11th feature – is no exception to the daddy issues formula, yet there’s something a little more encouraging about the dysfunctional caregivers on display here.
As with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Anderson makes playful use of both narrative and visual framing devices to tell this specific story within a story. First, he invites the audience in through a black and white, 1950s TV show, using Academy ratio dimensions, and fronted by Bryan Cranston’s unnamed host. He narrates a programme about the production of a play called Asteroid City – written by Ed Norton’s playwright Conrad Earp – named after the fictional desert town where the events in the show take place. The scenes of the play are in turn presented in wide screen and vibrantly stylised colours, showing not just the difference between the theatrical and cinematic spaces, but also providing a conflict between the art and the artist as the very question of the play’s themes and motivations bleed between worlds.
The play takes place in 1955, where a bunch of students, parents, cowboys, teachers, military men and scientists convene for an annual Junior Stargazer convention. War photographer Augie Steenbeck (Schwartzman) arrives with his four children – high-schooler and Junior Stargazer, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and identical triplet girls (Ella, Gracie and Willan Faris) – and is dealing with the recent death of his wife/ their mother with the imminent help of his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks).
Augie has yet to tell his children of their mother’s passing three weeks earlier, but in typical Anderson fashion, the tragic news is revealed with restrained delivery, a matter-of-fact tone and a comedic beat tuned to his specific melodic storytelling. To some, the scene may present as emotionless; to me, it’s steeped with so much melancholic resonance, it’s hard not to shed a tear for each Steenbeck in that moment. For Schwartzman, it was deeply personal.
‘That’s almost exactly what happened to my father and my uncle when they were kids,’ the actor wrote in an op-ed for IndieWire. ‘My grandfather packed them up in Brooklyn and they drove across the country to California, and didn’t find out that their mother had died until a few weeks later. So when I read that part, it was eerie, like my dad was a part of the scene. It was very emotional.
‘When my own father passed away, my mother said, “Remember, there’s no wrong way to feel.” I was 13 at the time and didn’t get it – but Asteroid City helped me understand what she meant.’
For me, Asteroid City helped me to understand that even in a world as tightly curated with infinitesimal details as Anderson loves to build them, the characters rarely have a sense of control over their circumstances. They must deal with the uncertainty of life – whether that’s in the form of an absent father, dead mother, a UFO or a playbook – and face those emotions in any which way they see fit. Even if it means not fitting in.
Visit our screenings page to find out where you can watch Asteroid City and see our full film schedule at the Houses