WARNING: Spoilers (go watch this beautiful movie and then come back again!)
This review was written during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike in 2023 in partnership with Liberty Hall. We stand in full support of both unions, donations can be made to the Entertainment Community Fund at https://entertainmentcommunity.org/
Written by Communications Director, Abbey Todd
“Don’t try to understand it. Just keep telling the story.”
Asteroid City (2023) is the newest installment from director Wes Anderson. The film is a Matryoshka doll of itself; quickly establishing its structure as a television show about a play, with a play about another play inside of that. It opens with Bryan Cranston as the host of the television show, introducing each character and setting up the first layer of the play. Within Cranston’s narration, we are seemingly watching a program similar to the likes of the Twilight Zone. The star studded cast establishes the subsequent layers, and then plays with its format in the most interesting of ways, including setups and stage directions to be referenced later on in the piece. The most notable of these events is where Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) burns his hand on a griddle, creating a moment for the superior play’s actor Jones Hall to question the action with playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), whose relationship appears to be a quintessential part of the story.
I loved this movie for so many different reasons. The main points are obvious: space themed, Jeff Goldblum as a quintessential “just a little guy” style alien, desert western setting, Tom Hanks acting opposite 3 adorable little witches, and the fact that it’s just so visually appealing (yes, the movie poster is on my Christmas wishlist for this year). Contrary to the surface level things, this movie still sits with me with its deeper concepts. The interplay between each layer of the television program and plays allows for moments of brevity, (i.e. Bryan Cranston showing up in color for two seconds, only to realize he wasn’t supposed to be there), but allows for deeper interplays as well.
Asteroid City is a wonderful exploration between actor, character, and story. Following the principle actor Jones Hall in the scene where he meets Conrad Earp for the first time, we are privy to the first interaction between story and actor. Jones asks Conrad about the specific scene we see in the third act of the movie where Augie burns his hand on the griddle, and both can’t seem to fully grasp the reason for it happening, although Jones has his own theory. After making this connection and Jones receiving the leading role, we see the two share a kiss as the film moves to a different scene. Cranston also set up this scene by stating that it was here that the writing of the play and the characters within it became inexplicably tied together. In the later scene with the introduction of Willem Defoe’s character, Conrad explicitly says that his play is about “infinity, and I don’t know what else,” further tying the play and its actors together as one entity to be figured out together.
In subsequent scenes in this level of the play (represented in its black and white coloration), we find out that Conrad Earp had died six months into the production’s run. From my interpretation, Jones now grasps at the play in search for meaning in Conrad’s words- trying to have just one more connection with his lover. This theory solidified with me in the scene on the balcony between Schwartzman and Margot Robbie, “you’re the wife who played my actress.” This slip up in words could signify his lack of grasp on reality after pouring everything he had into the play to try and find meaning, but I think this is Jones’ attempt to figure out what Conrad wanted to say to him. If this character was written to be his character’s wife, then maybe Conrad had left him something in the lines of her character. We also see in the interaction with Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and Augie Steenbeck as they read lines, a possible break in character to Jones Hall when Midge asks Augie to “use your grief,” possibly relating to the grief of losing Conrad.
Another scene particularly sticks out to me. The discussion between Jones Hall and Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), the play’s director, where Green says “Don’t try to understand it. Just keep telling the story.” To me this movie is just as much about storytelling as much as other themes it holds. A story means different things to different people, they will take from it what resonates with them personally. Just keep telling the story and let it tell itself. People will find the meaning in it after, just as they always have. But it also is a message for Jones to try and get him to just live in the story, and that it doesn’t have to hold a special meaning for him. This is shown even more so when Jones leaves saying, “I need a breath of fresh air,” immediately answered by Green’s “You won’t find one.” I think about this interaction between the two a lot, and how it relates to everyday life. Not everything needs to have a meaning, just keep living and it will find you.
In an effort to not drone on forever about this movie, which is something I think I could do, I leave you all with my final thoughts and wishes for everyone to go and see this film another time. There is so much in this movie to find, interactions between different characters that introduce a different navigation of humanity than originally found in the first viewings. In this review, I focused a lot on Jason Schwartzman’s character, but there are so many different avenues to further explore. Scarlett Johansson’s character has many different layers, especially when looking through the lens of the black and white layer, the whole “you can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep” scene, and I really have to do a deep dive into what Steve Carell is doing over there (or not doing, who knows?). After seeing this film three times over, I love to find something different in each viewing. There is also something to be said about the theatrical experience of it. Having the communal glee of seeing the alien for the first time and laughing with all of your fellow movie goers. The wonderful people of Liberty Hall told me they don’t expect to stop showing it anytime soon, so support your local theater and see this wonderful movie and find your new favorite pieces of it.