I’ll start my piece about Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” with this: I’m in deep admiration of people who can raise millions of dollars simply to indulge themselves. I also admire the actual investors. That they have this much money to squander on spending time with movie stars, that’s pretty swell.
“Asteroid City” is playing on Amazon Prime now. I paid 20 bucks to see it, and I’d like it back. Is it well made? Sure. The art direction is precious, perfect, contrived, impeccable. It all looks good. But it adds up to absolutely nothing. It’s a fraud.
Anderson has made some terrific movies in this vein before. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Moonrise Kingdom” were very clever. His films before that — “Bottle Rocket” and “The Royal Tennenbaums” — were amusing and off beat. But Anderson has reached the point where he’s having a laugh at our expense. First it was “The French Dispatch,” a box office disaster, and now “Asteroid City.”
Dozens of familiar faces dot this film shot in Spain at I’m sure tremendous expense. So far the film has made about $25 million in the US. It’s like petty larceny on the part of the filmmakers. Everyone wants to be in the cool group at school so you go see a movie with Edward Norton, Scarlett Johansson, Jason Schwarzman and a bunch of people who are in on the joke. But the joke is on us.
Anderson is one of the most indulged directors in modern history. Years ago, some studio was putting him up a boutique hotel on Irving Place and footing his bills. Now they say he’s living in France, I’ll bet he’s having a great time. He can pick up the phone and summon two dozen name actors to Europe for a six week shoot and someone pays the bill — even if the actors have no lines, or the movie has no plot.
“Asteroid City” is sort of like an unfunny parody of “Oppenheimer.” It’s set in the desert in 1955, where the children of rich people come to be in a science camp. An alien lands in this Area 51, so the people are quarantined. Not a lot happens. There’s little comedy and no drama. Actors make cameos, say silly things, and waste a lot of time. Scenes are sketches that go to black. Everyone has a contrived, meaningfully funny name. Schwarzman plays a war photographer named Steenbeck because that’s the name of the editing machine used in pre-digital times. So clever! You spend more time figuring out the names in these films than following the story.
The sets are built on a soundstage against painted backgrounds. There’s a lot of effort to make the film look surreal or animated. No one, however, is animated, in the real sense. Everyone is disaffected, droll, detached. The actors have cool costumes.
The space or science camp, it turns out, is fiction. The actors are making a movie. Sometimes we go backstage, where there’s some discussion of what’s happening in the shots. Listen, we’ve all been backstage a lot. Go see “Noises Off.” This is a worn out gimmick by now. How about an actual movie?
The next Anderson movie is based on Roald Dahl’s “The World of Henry Sugar.” There are just a few characters. If it’s not a substantial leap out of this morass, disappointment will be heavy. It’s time to take all this brilliance and making something meaningful, not just attractive.