Wes Anderson’s style is easy to mock. The formula is simple: symmetrically framed shots, pastel color schemes, dollhouse-style set designs, a soundtrack of obscure pop gems from the sixties, and stilted, deadpan dialogue delivered by frequent actors from Anderson’s repertoire. That formula is so consistent and easily identifiable that a robot could imitate it. In fact, getting robots to make faux Anderson takes on everything from The Lord of the Rings to Batman seems to be what at least 10 percent of the computing power behind ChatGPT gets used for these days. But when it comes to making a movie that looks exactly like a Wes Anderson movie, nobody can touch the man himself.
His latest, Asteroid City, is like the ur–Wes Anderson movie, more Wes Anderson–y than ever. The movie is split between the parts of the film that you see in the trailer—the terra-cotta-hued desert images of a backdrop that looks like it was built of painted milk cartons and leftover Amazon boxes by an uncommonly aesthetically minded, detail-oriented, and patient ten-year-old, as Asteroid City’s residents deal with an extraterrestrial encounter in the foreground—and a framing sequence in black and white. The cast consists of most of Anderson’s regulars: Jason Schwartzman, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton, Fisher Stevens, Tony Revolori, Liev Schreiber, Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeffrey Wright all make appearances, as well as newcomers Tom Hanks and Steve Carell (the latter stepping in for longtime Anderson muse Bill Murray, who dropped out when he caught COVID). The dialogue is as stylized as ever, the child characters are all astonishingly emotionally mature, and the soundtrack is full of western tunes from the fifties and sixties. The entire film seems intentionally crafted to create a sense of emotional distance, for a few reasons—not least of which is that the film’s opening explains that Asteroid City isn’t a real place, and the story that takes place in Anderson’s pastel diorama is actually a play being staged for a studio audience on a midcentury television program.
Reading that description, you probably already know whether Asteroid City is for you. And after a few minutes of watching it, it became very apparent to me that I am in the group of viewers upon whom the movie’s charms are lost. That’s fine—I’m not interested in yucking anyone else’s yums—but reading the glowing reviews from friends on Letterboxd after the screening, to say nothing of the professional critics who’ve gushed that Asteroid City is Anderson’s best work in years, a vivid meditation on grief, and an “unexpectedly touching” story of broken humanity, I’m less upset than confused. What am I missing here?
I used to get Wes Anderson. If a nuclear bomb were set to go off in the heart of Manhattan and the malevolent scheme could only be thwarted by reciting every single line of Bottle Rocket to the terrorists, there’d be a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue the following weekend in my honor. I think about Rushmore often enough that Max Fischer is kind of just a background character in my own head. And The Royal Tenenbaums, where Anderson combined his love of zany characters and baffling interpersonal dynamics with a depth and emotional resonance that still makes my jaw drop when I think about it, is about as good a movie as any that exists. The twenty-plus years since its release have only further established that it can go toe-to-toe with Citizen Kane or The Godfather. Those three films are, of course, the three movies Anderson cowrote with college buddy and longtime collaborator Owen Wilson, who abandoned screenwriting for full-time acting after Tenenbaums.
I’ve long assumed that the relationship between Anderson and Wilson was like that of band members who met long before anyone involved was famous, in which the genius isn’t necessarily because you’ve got the greatest talents in the world assembled in a room, but because you’ve got artists collaborating who know how to encourage one another’s best instincts or know just the right way to subtly bully one another out of self-indulgence. Meg White’s not the best drummer in the world, sure, but I’ve never met anyone who listens to the Dead Weather more often than the White Stripes. Wilson has talked about why he stopped writing a few times over the years, and he doesn’t seem to miss it too much; he’s often compared the experience to having to turn in a term paper. And his writing partnership with Anderson sounds like it was contentious (Anderson described producer James L. Brooks’s role on Bottle Rocket as “refereeing our head-butting matches”).
Anderson has always loved to build colorful dollhouses for his characters to inhabit; Wilson, according to stories about those early films, enjoyed puncturing them with jarring bursts of reality. On the commentary track to Rushmore, the two discuss this—Anderson gushes about the “storybook feeling” of the “insular world” the film builds, while Wilson talks about the moments in which the film “breaks through that” to make the audience uncomfortable. The scene during which they talk about this—where Jason Schwartzman’s Max’s charming fantasia of falling in love with his teacher runs smack-dab into her own agency around who she enters into a relationship with—is one of the most powerful in the film.
When Anderson and Wilson stopped writing together, those grounded, dissonant moments appeared less and less frequently in Anderson’s films. The insular storybook feelings took over and became the whole show. Anderson has made eight films since The Royal Tenenbaums. I found some disappointing (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox), some vaguely offensive (The Darjeeling Limited, an India-set romp whose only clever bit was casting Wilson as someone with a broken nose; Isle of Dogs, in which poor Scarlett Johansson gets cast as the voice of a dog and still finds herself playing a sexpot), and one—Moonrise Kingdom—reasonably charming, if inessential. I sat out a couple that didn’t interest me, then returned for Asteroid City based on the glowing reviews.
What I found neither disappointed, offended, nor charmed me—rather, I left the theater genuinely baffled. I had watched a movie that deliberately kept its audience at an emotional distance, using multiple framing devices that interrupted the film to make clear that what we were watching was not meant to depict the real experiences or authentic emotions of real people, but rather artifice upon artifice, a film about a TV show about a play. Whatever contemplation of grief is allegedly buried within there missed me by a mile. I’ve grieved before—my dad died a few months ago; a dog I raised from a puppy died a few years before that—but what I saw unfold in Asteroid City didn’t feel anything like that. I didn’t believe that Schwartzman was playing a husband too broken by the loss of his wife to function, or that Hanks was playing a grieving father desperate to care for his granddaughters. Were the critics who found themselves deeply moved by the film full of it, or do I just have a car battery where my heart should be?
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Asteroid City since I left the theater, but mostly in an effort to solve that question. I’ve read dozens of reviews and talked about the film with friends who liked it. And I think the answer is less about Asteroid City and more about Anderson, and those who enjoy his work, and what they get out of it. Those fans who remain moved by his post-Wilson storytelling aren’t wrong, nor are they suckers who are easy marks for symmetrical shot construction and colors that pop. But I do think they’re bringing something to the film that isn’t really on the surface of it in order to have that experience.
Even after the breakup of the writing partnership with Wilson, it’s clear that Anderson’s work is more than just the tropes that end up as TikTok trends or lazy AI spoofs—but it does seem to mostly be in conversation with itself. The meaningful part of Asteroid City, for those who find it meaningful, seems to be not that it’s about characters who are ostensibly struggling with loss, but that the ideas of loss, and art, and how to feel and perform those big feelings, are occurring within those beautifully framed shots full of characters who don’t seem to be interested in how human beings talk to one another. If you’re interested in seeing how the paper cutouts in a diorama might process grief or loss or uncertainty or self-consciousness, Asteroid City delivers. Given that Anderson’s style is so distinctive, so identifiable, and so successful, it makes sense that there’s a big audience that wants to explore those feelings in his colorful sandbox.
Wes Anderson movies are about how characters in Wes Anderson movies respond to things, in other words. I believe it’s entirely possible to be moved and have a strong emotional reaction to seeing how that unfolds—but I think that requires a substantial investment in the worlds Anderson has crafted throughout decades of filmmaking, like Marvel movies for people who stuff their ticket stubs into New Yorker totes after they sit down in the theater. It’s not for me anymore, but I finally understand whom it is for, and I’m glad they have it.