Rated PG-13, despite having full frontal female nudity only for a few seconds. There's also some mild language and silly violence. When we saw that this was only PG-13, I was super excited to show the kids their first live-action Wes Anderson movie. Yeah, I'm glad that my better instincts told me to screen the movie before letting them in on the action. First of all, this probably would have bored them to tears, but also that nudity was not PG-13 by any means. I wonder what was part of this decision.
DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson
In college, I took a couple of theatre theory classes. As a theatre major, it wasn't shocking. As part of this theory class, we had to read some pretty intense plays, most of them considered part of the literary and theatrical canon. I was such a little turd then, let me tell you. I don't think I would like hanging out with me. Between the ego and the peacocking, I would probably end up bullying that kid today just to take him down a peg. But I would say that a million plays would be dumb just because I didn't take the time to understand them. Many of these plays I would revisit later. Not all. Some of them were too difficult and still intimidate me today. But I realized that I shouldn't judge something too harshly just because I don't understand it. Well, that college student reared his ugly head yesterday because I left Asteroid City a little mad.
I'm going to give myself some credit. I don't watch movies passively all that often anymore. I know that I'm going to have to write something about every movie I watch, so it's not like my critical brain is just going to shut down especially when watching something that Wes Anderson made. It's just that I'm having a bit of a come-to-Jesus reaction to Wes Anderson now. I loved Wes Anderson. I still think that The Royal Tenenbaums might be a perfect movie. Most of Anderson's ouevre is fabulous. But I also know that Anderson is such a character that AI can imitate him perfectly, much to his disdain. Asteroid City, unfortunately, is almost distilled Wes Anderson. It's a bummer because I have to show my age a bit. I loved early Wes Anderson. As goofy and artsy fartsy as these movies were, they told heartwarming stories. I didn't even love Rushmore, but I acknowledged that there was a heck of a tale to that movie. Instead, Anderson sometimes seemed to shift into the world of the ecclectic rather than the grounded world of his previous stories. Now, I'm admitting that I thought that Moonrise Kingdom was the nadir of his canon. Upon first viewing, I think that Asteroid City might be my least favorite. But I'll admit, a sentence ago, I kind of cheated. Okay, I didn't quite cheat. I did what I asked my students to do; I looked up the answer.
I hate what I used to be so much that I must assume that my read of the movie must be my fault. And I'll tell you, there's an answer that makes sense of this movie. In terms of most distilled Wes Anderson, Asteroid City wins. It feels cold and distant, like Anderson is just embracing his comfort zone and nothing else. But I also know that Anderson is smarter than I am. I know, I sound sycophantic. But he really is a very smart man and this movie feels like a very smart movie. It just feels cold and I can't deny that the movie is colder than my favorite Royal Tenenbaums. There is no one character that really is emotionally vulnerable to peel back the veneer of Anderson's visual tapestry and that frustrates me. Maybe it is because I adore vulnerability. But according to the cheatsheet I just read, the only one vulnerable in this movie is Wes Anderson. See, I really thought that this movie was fighting the notion of being hurt. Okay, let's summarize what I read and see if it has any credence. According to (I CLOSED THE TAB?!?), this is a movie that sells its theme early on. Matt Dillon, when diagnosing what is wrong with Augie's car, thinks that one of two things can be wrong with it. He quickly discovers that something unknown is stopping the car from working and that's almost the end of that plot. If you use that line as the message for the story, that actually is quite vulnerable of Anderson. Anderson is either great or terrible. He looks like Moonrise Kingdom or he doesn't. Wes Anderson probably has the most identifiable look for any director today, shy maybe of David Lynch. (Even Lynch changes what kind of film he uses between films.) This film is both the quintessential Wes Anderson film or it is absolutely something different.
And there's some truth to that. One of the first projects I do in my film class is analyze whether a film is formalist, realistic, or experimental. Short version of this (which butchers the point of the lesson, but I don't have all day to write this), is "Does the director want the audience to lose themselves in the film or does the director want you to remember that you are watching a movie?" (I so want to elaborate and explain how I gave you three terms and only two definitions.) Most films play between those extremes. Anderson, in the past, jumped between the two poles. But in Asteroid City, he's screaming metatext. He wraps what should be a standard Anderson plot with this whole concept of the notion of creation. The film starts with Bryan Cranston discussing how everything we're viewing is a play. Often, the characters will break through the fourth wall and become the actors within the film we are watching. That monochromatic "real world" --which, intentionally ironically, is false --is a little bleak. It's frustrated and the artist doesn't know why he is making the choices that he's making. It's almost full of angst and I can see a very sad Wes Anderson behind the camera. (Geez, I'm about to 180 my opinion on this movie as I write about it.) What I initially took as a distraction, Anderson adding ingredients to appear complicated, is actually quite complex.
It's why the in-universe "Asteroid City" play is probably the least engaging of Anderson's film. Even though we spend the majority of the film in "Asteroid City", the story is about the making of the story. It's Anderson making something kind of daring. He almost knows that the world of "Asteroid City" sucks and wants to point out that he might just be tired about making the same pieces of art that can be mocked into oblivion. He's aware that you are trolling him and he's going to troll himself harder. Enter me, who is just adoring what he's done in the past. I get frustrated because I treat Anderson movies as seasons of TV. "Season 3 is better than Season 7" logic. Ultimately, the show is always the show and my complaints is that the magic can't be captured again. Or as Anderson puts it, "You can't wake up if you don't sleep." He's breaking his own conventions by forcing us into something new. It's painful, almost like childbirth. Man, I need to watch this movie again.
So, yeah, I'm cheating. I'm stealing someone else's breakdown and I'm applying it. I ask my students, when frustrated, to use Cliff's Notes. As long as they are reading, I'm okay with them getting inspiration from other people who have put a lot of thought into the work. I'm watching the movie and I want to like it. But I'm the thing being criticized with Asteroid City. Maybe I'm the sycophant I accused myself of being earlier, letting him off the hook. But I've been harsh on him before. I really think that there's something to be said about wanting Anderson to be one thing. I suppose, if I'm playing devil's advocate, that he could have made a movie without his signature style. But that would have been Gus Van Sant's Psycho. It would have been a movie that was an experiment for experiment's sake. (And now I've explained the third category.) It would have been forgotten. I have a vibe that film nerds are going to be talking about Asteroid City for a while. Mind you, I have to imagine all of this because I'm not on Reddit nor do I hang out with film nerds in real life.
Golly, you know what? I have to go on Letterboxd and give this a rating. I don't know if I can without watching it again. I do think that I've 180'd on this film. Maybe I can convince my wife to finish watching it, giving her the insight that I've stolen from someone smarter than me. Either way, I don't know if I'll have a final thought on this movie or not.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.