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‘Asteroid City’ shows Anderson at his artistic peak (so far)

Steve Carell in director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release.
Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features
Steve Carell in director Wes Anderson's ASTEROID CITY, a Focus Features release.

Wes Anderson is a singular artist in our history. His work is instantly recognizable, and for that reason he’s often poorly imitated, but he’s about so much more than what any single frame of his films looks like, and we can see his progression through the course of his career as he continues to explore common themes and to hone his craft while never compromising his art.

Asteroid City is arguably Anderson’s greatest artistic achievement and his most thematically dense, as he continues to develop his ideas about loss, existential confusion, and the distinction between artifice and art, if there is one. He layers narrative upon narrative to tell us the story of a play and the actors, creators, and crew behind that play, jumping in and out of what’s supposed to be “real” and what’s not, even as our sympathies often tend toward the characters in the ostensibly unreal part of the production. Much of what we see in the film is that play, but it’s presented in a stunning, vibrant color palette and sweeping widescreen, while the descriptions of what’s going on behind the scenes are shown in black and white, boxed in by the frame. So, what is really real?

The film’s pace is much more measured than we’ve seen lately from Anderson, as he gives his scenes space and room to breathe—among many remarkable moments is one in which some children play a song with a group of musical cowboys, and everyone takes the opportunity simply to dance. And the movie is, of course, very funny, not just because of Anderson’s peculiar dialogue and the murderer’s row of actors who nail every bit of it, but also because of the visual jokes Anderson adds with the way he moves his camera, yet another hallmark of his.

Asteroid City is a rich, deep text, one that has already had many thousands of words written about it. It’s also a delight to watch, purely as entertainment. There are not a lot of people who could pull that off, and Anderson is the only one, ever, who could do it in this way.

Asteroid City is in theaters.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.