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Review: Asteroid City

[The following review contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]

Asteroid City isn’t just the quintessential Wes Anderson film; it’s his mission statement. Hell, considering the flimsiness of the fourth wall—several monologues are delivered straight into the camera lens, giving the impression that they are addressed to the audience—it might even qualify as a manifesto.

In keeping with the director’s previous work, every shot of the eponymous desert town is meticulously composed, as perfect as a postcard—not necessarily symmetrical, but definitely immaculately balanced: the cabins at the local motor inn, the tables in the picnic area, and the stools at the counter of the cramped diner are all assembled in neat, orderly rows. This clean, harmonious visual style stands in stark contrast to the setting’s true nature; the frame can barely contain the chaos and absurdity careening through it: a high-speed police chase whizzes past on the single blacktop road more regularly than the solitary bus, mushroom clouds rise like gargantuan trees above the distant nuclear testing site, and an otherwise ordinary vending machine dispenses deeds for parcels of land the size of tennis courts.

The populace is likewise defined by disharmony, disorder, and imperfection. Critics often describe Anderson’s characters as “quirky,” but here, at least, they defy such reductive, dismissive labels. The protagonist (or the most prominent member of the expansive ensemble, to phrase it more accurately), Jason Schwartzman’s Augie Steenbeck, is deliciously complex beneath his surface-level eccentricities (blank stare, scruffy beard, humorously large pipe); while his profession as a war photographer allows him to impose some semblance of structure upon the inherent senselessness of the world, his interpersonal relationships suffer due to his inability to verbally express himself. Whenever he tries to inform his children that their mother succumbed to cancer weeks ago, for example, his mouth refuses to cooperate. “The timing is never right,” he defensively stammers when his father-in-law (an appropriately stern Tom Hanks) berates him for his hesitation; the images that his shutter captures may be permanently frozen, but beyond their borders, the hours tick by inexorably, leaving him in the dust.

Similarly, actress Midge Campbell’s (Scarlett Johansson, flexing her comedic muscles) career provides a safe environment in which to confront the abuse that she’s endured offscreen, thus empowering her to take control of her trauma. In an effort to encourage Augie to venture outside of his shell, she enlists his aid as a rehearsal partner; in the process of performing the supporting roles in her melodramas, the emotionally-repressed man gradually learns to properly articulate his grief, enabling him to finally mourn the loss of his wife.

The movie’s postmodern framing device further reinforces and enriches this recurring theme. The central action of the plot is presented as a televised production of a theatrical play, complete with Bryan Cranston as a host akin to Rod Serling; in scenes set behind-the-scenes—in cluttered, monochrome backstage areas—the cast grapples with the dense, cryptic, inscrutable material, struggling to rationalize its ambiguities and loose threads. Why does an alien steal a meteorite from a remote tourist attraction, only to unceremoniously return it days later? What exactly is the allegedly "metaphorical" extraterrestrial supposed to symbolize? And why does Augie intentionally burn his hand on a stove? Unfortunately, the solutions to these riddles remain infuriatingly elusive; like Nietzsche’s God, the author has long since passed on, taking any “objective” interpretation of the story to his grave.

This overarching search for meaning permeates every level of the metanarrative. After all, human beings—from Episcopalians to atheists, from schoolteachers to singing cowboys, from scientists to artists—naturally want to find some purpose in the vast, random, indifferent cosmos that they inhabit. But sometimes, concrete answers to life’s mysteries simply do not exist. Rather than becoming paralyzed with insecurity over the gaps in our knowledge, Anderson argues, we must embrace a degree of uncertainty in order to make progress. Curiosity, in other words, is a feature of our culture, not a bug.

Indeed, in philosophy, spirituality, and Asteroid City, the ultimate destination is rarely as significant as the journey.

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