The stage was set for Wes Anderson. The auteur de quirk’s latest film, Asteroid City, opens with a prologue that admittedly threw this reviewer for a loop. A host (Bryan Cranston) advises the audience that Asteroid City, the film you’re about to see, is actually a play. Anderson’s film is a film-within-a-film. Or, rather, it’s a play-within-a-film. The conceit seems like a smart continuation of the formal sophistication Anderson displayed with The French Dispatch. After paying homage to the literary world with an anthology film in which chapters served as articles in the final issue of the titular magazine, making a movie about the dramatic scene invites an especially novel premise for Anderson’s aesthetic.
In a way, he’s been building to this sort of meta-theatrical film his entire career. From The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs, The French Dispatch, and everything in between, Anderson’s films reflect upon the act of storytelling. Moreover, his films offer no pretense for realism. Staging a world for stories is Anderson’s jam.
Where The French Dispatch veers between the dutiful editor (Bill Murray) and stories by scribes played by Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright, and Owen Wilson (sometimes featuring the gang enacting the stories, sometimes telling of the stories’ background as a framing device), The French Dispatch totally gels in style, smarts, and delivery. That’s not quite the case with Asteroid City. While the script is one of Anderson’s funniest, he drops the sandbag while staging “Asteroid City,” the play. Don’t get me wrong—I thoroughly enjoyed Asteroid City from beginning to end, but the adaptation nerd in me was practically heartbroken. Anderson comes so close to touching greatness, but bellyflops just a bit.
Making the Play
Once Cranston’s host tells audiences to don their meta-theatre hats, Asteroid City introduces playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). Earp finds himself in the creative process of drafting “Asteroid City.” Quite amusingly with the film’s eye for theatrical constructs, the framing device of Earp’s narrative plays exactly like a play. As Cranston narrates, Anderson shoots the scene like a stage production. The camera has a theatre-goer’s vantage point somewhere between the orchestra and the cheap seats. The dramatic axis never crosses the stage. Respecting the 180° line invites one to marvel at Earp’s home. It’s a three-walled set adorned with great details like paintings of cowboys riding bareback and other humorously masculine fixtures.
It’s all quite brilliant as Earp readies “Asteroid City” for its run at the Tarkington Theatre, named (presumably) for writer/dramatist Booth Tarkington. That’s a nice nod to Orson Welles and the self-reflexive style he unleashed upon an unsuspecting test audience with his adaptation of Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons—a game-changer ahead of its time for embedding the art of storytelling into the film itself. Asteroid City is probably a hoot to watch in the suburbs, too.
“Asteroid City”—the play
Soon, though, the film cuts from Earp in the throes of the creative process to his drama itself. A stark turquoise sky signals that we’re in new terrain. A clown car of stars—arguably Anderson’s biggest cast yet—quickly rolls into town. Scarlett Johansson plays sexpot actress Midge Campbell; Jason Schwartzman is bereaved father, Augie; Hope Davis does martini-guzzling mother Sandy, etc. They’re in town so that their kids can participate in some science show at the site where an asteroid landed. Every actor here reminds us that no role is too small.
It’s especially fun once Tilda Swinton arrives as Dr. Hickenlooper, the offbeat researcher who studies the crater. Woodrow (Jake Ryan), Augie’s son and one of the Junior Stargazers being fêted, finds himself especially intrigued by all the beeps and boops of Dr. Hickenlooper’s newfangled technology. She’s Jodie Foster in Contact, circa 1955. The premise is simply brilliant. Earp’s story draws inspiration from western movies, 1950s’ melodrama, Saturday morning cartoons, and Twilight Zone strangeness.
However, once Asteroid City enacts Earp’s play, Anderson sort of muddles it. When Cranston transitions the story from Earp’s writing to the play itself, the frame expands from Academy ratio formatting in black-and-white to widescreen with a vividly contrasted palette of blue and orange.
In his book Stage-Bound, André Loiselle writes how theatre and film exhibit different forces. Loiselle argues that plays have “centripetal” energy, meaning that drama flows inward. Everything comes from the wings to the centre of the stage. Film, however, defines itself with “centrifugal” forces. Characters can move with outward energy. A movie cowboy can ride into the sunset. Audiences, and the camera, may join him for the journey. Play audiences merely watch him gallop offstage.
The big clash that happens when filmmakers adapt stage dramas for film is that they can conjure dead energy that doesn’t work cinematically. Critics and audiences will often characterize such films as “stagey.” Crudely, such a film has limited dramatic space with few sets and mostly finds itself driven by dialogue. These films are basically filmed plays without artistic intervention. Asteroid City quickly finds itself wrestling with the complexity of meta-theatrebecause there’s so much artistic intervention. The film, like so many stage-to-screen adaptations or movies with embedded narratives, struggles with the fact that stage and screen have two distinct energies.
Anderson, oddly, totally gets this conundrum. The framing device has a hoot with the pitfalls of stage-to-screen limitations. One scene, for example, sees Mercedes Ford, the actress playing Midge in “Asteroid City,” on a train. Again played by Johansson, Ford receives a visit from the young actor playing Woodrow. He delivers a letter from the play’s director, Schubert (Adrien Brody), beckoning Mercedes back. There’s great drama and sharp visual comedy here as Anderson shoots the train scene—back in Academy ratio black-and-white—while respecting the dramatic axis of a play. It’s drolly stagey, as are glimpses of Schubert’s rehearsals and workshops with actors.
In another “making of” scene, Schubert’s girlfriend (Hong Chau) dumps him while providing dramatic notes. The thin layer of set design—which Anderson takes pain to remind us is a set—delivers a great punch line. As Asteroid City weaves between the play-within-a-film creations of “Asteroid City,” and the stagey vignettes that illustrate its production, though, Anderson plays it backwards.
This role-reversal means that Asteroid City constantly works against itself. Earp’s “play” unfolds as if in his imagination, but he envisions it awfully cinematically. It’s a bit odd since Anderson’s aesthetic caters to theatrical trimmings. Witness his films—The Grand Budapest Hotel, Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited—that play with a stage’s horizontal axis. His film sets usually resemble theatrical productions and they employ theatrical sight gags. They often reflect upon the construction of stories through tableaux shots and nifty production designs. Asteroid City sometimes signals this style, like when a wonky cardboard cut-out roadrunner drolly lurches through the frame.
At other moments, the dramatic set-ups betray the presumed theatrical origins. For example, Asteroid City and “Asteroid City” feature a motif in which Midge and Augie converse from their cabin windows. The proscenium-style set-up could accentuate the dramatic conceit: Two people speak while a short distance and two walls separate them. They’re like Romeo and Juliet. When the film plays the conversation in shot/reverse shot, one feels giddy waiting to see the unfinished backside of Schubert’s sets. Not so.
“Asteroid City,” the play, looks a whole lot like a movie. From the outset, audiences see the characters from a 360° view. The sets—Oscar worthy ones, really—are no longer stage designs. They’re movie sets with everything painted and finished on all sides. The arid desert town has a landscape that rolls for miles. Cars drive towards the horizon as police cars loop in and out. The Tarkington Theatre evidently has a soundproofed ring-road somewhere offscreen. Unlike the writer, Earp’s actors aren’t bound by stage left and stage right. Meanwhile, the highly stylized colour palette and cinematography build a perfect world for 1950s’ western melodrama. But that’s cinema. Not theatre.
Meta-theatre isn’t easy to do, but it’s not unprecedented. Just take Joe Wright’s sumptuous Anna Karenina, which tackles Tolstoy’s doorstop of a novel by setting the drama on a stage. The design gives theatrical panache to social attitudes and graces that might not jive with contemporary attitudes. Moreover, the conceit smartly harnesses the in-theatre audience and turns the element of spectatorship back on the characters. Theatre highlights oppressive forces and the artifice of social life in Anna Karenina. All the world’s a stage here, with Keira Knightley’s Anna constantly under scrutiny.
Look to Birdman, moreover, for an example that brilliantly fuses the inward and outward energies of the two art forms. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar winner sees Michael Keaton’s has-been superhero star stage a play. And, in a brilliant move, Iñárritu combines the forces of film and theatre by staging Birdman in extended one-take sequences. Actors play the scenes at length, just as they would on stage. And yet, Birdman affords the play-within-a-play extensive cinematic energy thanks to the freedom of a Steadicam. The energies of film and theatre aren’t at odds here. They’re in harmony. Add the joke that an actor who helped bastardize cinema with superhero movies needs theatre to redefine himself, and that’s just about the chef’s kiss of well-executed self-referentiality.
Anderson doesn’t get it totally wrong with Asteroid City. It’s not curtains for him. He understands that film and theatre are different mediums with unique strengths, freedoms, and limitations. “Asteroid City,” the show within the show, totally gets that with its delightfully self-reflexive style. It’s a wholly cinematic rendering of Earp’s script. One just wonders why Anderson didn’t have Earp write a movie instead.