A recent widower and his quirky kids travel to a remote desert town in Asteroid City.
Describing a Wes Anderson film is often a bit like trying to describe a Rube Goldberg machine. There are pieces and parts aplenty all doing things beyond their original design. You pretty much have to see it to fully grasp what the heck is going on. Jewish readers familiar with the highly repetitive Passover song “Chad Gadya” will feel most at home trying to digest this film’s plot.
(Deep breath) It’s a faux documentary about a famed playwright’s attempt to tell the story of a grieving family on their unusual journey to a sparsely populated, mildly curious local point of interest that celebrates a yearly tradition called Asteroid Day, and the surreal people and events encountered during that trip..
Now, somebody, for the love of God, please pass the oxygen.
Anderson’s films are the movie equivalent of Salvador Dali paintings. To say his work is an acquired taste is a bit like suggesting that eating 200 hot dogs makes for a fun afternoon. It’s just not something that most people find all that enticing or palatable. Still, for all their otherworldliness, you can often find something among the strangeness that speaks to you. Three of his previous films do just that for me: The Royal Tenenbaums, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom. I bask in the oddball nature of each of them while, at the same time, scratching my head in utter disbelief over the perceived appeal of much of the rest of his filmography. It strikes me a bit like having a few favorite hues of blue while despising every other cerulean shade. Aren’t they all just blue? Nope.
Of late, I’m finding his entries to be more about the expectations and less about the story, including each of his last three films. Fans go into a flutter over the smallest performance from a past Anderson movie actor. “Hey! There’s Bob Balaban!” Just look at the cast list that accompanies this review. It’s like trying to traverse a dictionary that isn’t in alphabetical order. I’m starting to wonder if actors trade “Wes Anderson” pins between them for having been in one of his films. The cachet seems to be at about the same level as making it into a classic Disney film.
To get my vote, a film’s got to captivate me with more than just eccentric visuals and noteworthy cameos. That’s pretty much what I got here. As the playwright, Ed Norton shows up now and again looking wooden. Willem Dafoe one-ups him in a segment where he barely even speaks, let alone moves. Tilda Swinton? Check. Adrien Brody? Check. Jeffrey Wright? Check. Hey! There’s Bob Balaban!
Jason Schwartzman as the “grieving” father — I quoted that since he doesn’t seem to actually do very much of it — delivers the best performance of his career. It’s refreshing to see him tackle something that doesn’t just present him as the clown, which is even more notable given that it’s in another Anderson vehicle.
The biggest challenge is that the story itself is as flat and unremarkable as its surrounding landscape. There’s just little there there. The rare moments of interest that do materialize disappear as quickly as a shooting star. Meanwhile, this celestial curiosity lands with nary a thud.