The Play is the Thing in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City

It could be argued The French Dispatch, Wes Anderson’s metatextual cinema amour to The New Yorker was perhaps the pinnacle of the Texan director’s affair with art and authorship. Where was the fantastic Mr Anderson going to go from that? Ironically, he went further down the path of art, authorship, performance, and irony with Asteroid City, one of his most humanistic works despite all the typical arch trickiness the audience has come to expect from Anderson’s oeuvre.

Asteroid City is a film about a television documentary about a long running play wherein characters rehearse for yet another role. The whole mise-en-abyme aspect is very much an established Anderson technique and one he returns to often. However, the technique can at times leave a distinctly artificial taste in the mouth of the viewer who can applaud the wit but wonder if there is any wisdom. Asteroid City seems to have found the balance The French Dispatch was lacking as it embraces its clever premise(s) but teases out some genuine emotion as characters tackle grief and their place in a universe where they are profoundly disconnected.

“The play’s the thing,” says Hamlet of his play within a play — a ruse designed to bring Claudius’ crimes to light. For Anderson, not really a modern-day Shakespeare, the play is quite literally the thing. The playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton giving us a touch of Tennessee Williams) is a recluse who finds love with Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman) who will be the leading man, Augie Steenbeck, in ‘Asteroid City’ a work that the playwright is crafting with the help of a Lee Strasberg like collective of actors, all of whom end up in the play.

Earp’s play is about ‘love, death, war, peace, art, the unknown, hope, science, space, deep sadness, and America… it’s also about infinity.’ It’s a play for the times, 1955. The Cold War and the arms/space race coalesce in the California/Nevada/Texas border town Asteroid City (population 87) a town which boasts a diner, a motel, a repair shop, and an Astronomical facility all near the Arid Plains crater where a meteorite landed thousands of years ago.

Asteroid City yearly boasts a competition of Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets who show off their work (that will be owned by the military) in the hope of winning the Hickenlooper Scholarship. In September 1955 with the sound of Atom bombs being tested in the distance, Augie Steenbeck takes his science wiz son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and his three daughters, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, and Pandora (played by the Faris sisters) to show off Woodrow’s work — an invention that allows projection on to the moon that could one day herald interstellar advertising.

Also arriving is famous actress, Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson doing her best Elizabeth Taylor ‘Wilting like a hot petunia’) whose daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards) is also competing. Midge is using the time to try to connect with Dinah, but admits she is a bad mother. She’s also rehearsing her next role. Augie takes a picture of her in the diner, she objects because he didn’t ask permission. Augie points out that he is a war photographer and he never asks permission. A brittle flirtation starts between the two which is undercut by the fact that Augie is a recent widower and Midge has a series of ex-husbands.

Augie’s wife (cut out of the play, by the director, but later reinserted by the television show) died three weeks before the family’s arrival at Asteroid City. He’s been waiting for the right time to tell his children. His annoyed father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) points out the time is never right, and he has to get on to it. Augie has been keeping the ashes of his wife in a Tupperware container. He eventually explains to his children that their mother is gone, something Woodrow suspected.

Anderson’s script latches on to many of his thematic concerns: kids falling in love, parents who don’t know how to parent, adults who try to use authority to overcome absurdity. There’s Jeffrey Wright’s Five Star General Gibson whose weird opening speech to welcome the Junior Stargazers is almost a trauma dump. Liev Schreiber’s J.J. Kellogg, a man’s man and father of brainiac Clifford (Aristou Meehan) who invented a death ray and spends his time asking people to dare him to do dangerous stunts, so he feels like he’s being seen, particularly by his father. Maya Hawke’s schoolteacher, June, whose entire foundation for understanding the world is upended. Tilda Swinton’s astronomer who doesn’t recognise that a series of dots and bleeps at the institute is actually a countdown clock to the strangest event that will happen in Asteroid City — the arrival of an alien spacecraft.

Anderson weaves the audience backwards and forwards through the narrative. We have Bryan Cranston’s television host who takes us through the creation of the play (a particularly great scene is Scarlett Johansson as a Hitchcock blonde being courted via a terrible letter from director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) delivered by a talented understudy who will end up as Woodrow). For all Wes Anderson’s dioramic perfection in the section of Asteroid City, some of the best meat in the film comes via the behind-the-scenes Tarkington Theater where the play itself was staged. We see Adrien Brody’s womanising director being dumped by his wife Polly (Hong Chau), Jones Hall begin to question how he can continue the play, if any of it makes sense, and if he’s even playing the character right. “Am I doing it right? Augie is so wounded his heartbreak is mine,” Hall tells Green. And indeed, Hall is heartbroken as his lover Conrad has died. “It doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story,” Green assures him.

Outside the theater Hall spies the actress (Margot Robbie) who was to play Augie’s wife who he was supposed to say goodbye to in a dream sequence. They read through the scene together and it’s this specific moment that Anderson shows his hand — all the artificially seems to melt away as two actors speak the lines that are the emotional core of the film.

With a cast that is astounding (Steve Carell, Hope Davis, Matt Dillon, Rupert Friend, Willem Dafoe, Stephen Park, Sophia Lillis, Bob Babalan, Jeff Goldblum, just to name a few) there is a plethora of quirky character moments. But what Anderson is trying express is sadness. Midge and Augie form the centre of that idea “Two catastrophically wounded people who don’t explore the depths of our pain. That’s our connection.”

Whether or not emotion can reach through the artificiality will perhaps come down to the audience’s tolerance for Anderson’s schtick and his penchant for favouring side plots. There are government and corporate conspiracy, boys’ own adventure hijinks, symbolic ramps that lead to nowhere, and a stop motion dancing roadrunner whose appearance is to highlight how absurd the whole concoction is. An alien appears on Earth and a town filled with scientists, the military, cowboy troubadours, school children, and roped in bystanders have to each come to terms with what that means, if anything at all, for their place in the cosmos. Maybe in Wes Anderson’s magenta averse Asteroid City it means nothing, maybe it means everything, and maybe he just wants the audience to keep watching the story until the end credits roll with Jarvis Cocker crooning over them singing “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep.”

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks

Writer: Wes Anderson, (story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!