America is a strange country, and it seems we tend to celebrate that come summer. I’ll give you an example. There’s a very funny movie in theaters just now, Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, that seems to include about two dozen famous actors, from Baby Boomers to Millennials, in roles large and small. It’s a very good production and only cost $25 million, since Hollywood stars queue up around the block to appear in Anderson’s movies, which nevertheless never win him any Oscars.
Asteroid City, Anderson’s tenth studio picture, is sure to be one of the top ten Hollywood movies of the year, but I don’t think it’ll make much money. How can you have this much star power, as we used to say, and fail to make bank, as we used to say? What’s all that beauty for if not for popularity? Maybe Anderson is too gentle for success—at any rate, that’s my guess as to why his sense of humor isn’t more appreciated. There is something gentle in his pointing out absurdity, as though he wished not to give offense to his fellow countrymen.
Perhaps another reason for Anderson’s lack of popularity is that his movies have largely not been about America, or at least not set in America. It’s only now in his 50s, well into middle age, that he has begun to make statements about the country, especially the mid-century moment when the country we see around us was formed, and especially the elites that did most to form it. His previous picture, The French Dispatch, was about literary aspirations, the hope to make America as sophisticated as Paris. Asteroid City is about the twin powers of mid-century America: atomic explosions and TV.
Asteroid City is made of two interlocking parts. One is filmed in widescreen in a kind of postcard pastel palette, testimony to the innocent joy of that new birth of freedom after WWII. It’s a farce set in 1955, when widescreen filming was brand new, yet another American achievement that studios had worked on before the Great Depression, without figuring out how to make it profitable. The story mixes the grief of widower Augie Steenbeck (Anderson’s preferred lead, Jason Schwartzmann), with his kids in tow, with the national enthusiasm for science and technology in the Space Age.
The setting is Asteroid City, Nevada, in the desert—atomic test blasts in the background—the occasion is a science convention rewarding the whiz-kids of America, in a very inclusive, multi-ethnic setting that also includes girls. Nothing stopping women from being scientists (the local astronomer is played by Tilda Swinton). One of them is Augie’s teenage boy, Woodrow Lindbergh Steenbeck (pointing to an older America, where patriotism did occasionally incline men to name their boys for famous public figures). These kids have invented laser weapons, jet packs, and a way of projecting the American flag onto the moon, but they can hardly become friends, since their education doesn’t involve any self-knowledge and they are very unusual, to say nothing of the usual problems of American teenagers. The military-industrial complex applauds them: An Army General (Jeffrey Wright) and a representative for the sponsoring corporation (Bob Balaban), while disputing who owns the inventions.
Meanwhile, their all-American parents (Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis) look on the whole show with a mixture of unhappiness and incomprehension. There seems to be a lot of divorce in the background, a presage of things to come. Among them, Augie meets and falls for a kind of Marilyn Monroe actress named Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johanssen), who is chaperoning her daughter, who also is a whiz kid, while fleeing Broadway for Hollywood. They’re both damaged goods, perhaps because they have strange aspirations that go well beyond what’s available. Augie is a war photographer (he looks like a tiny Hemingway and seems based on Jimmy Stewart’s character in Hitchcock’s 1954 picture, Rear Window). Midge is a celebrity everyone desires. So somehow they cover beauty and ugliness, peace and war between them, and so they’re admired Americans. But neither is really fit to take care of kids; both are trying to be so important as to be admired. It’s a full-time job offering America entertaining images.
Thus a small desert town with an incompetent mechanic (Matt Dillon) and a not-much-more-competent motel owner (Steve Carrell) becomes the scene of the American question, what is the future? This much prosperity and peace should offer people something impressive, but what? Augie is set for California, like cowboys in the Westerns, the end of the frontier and the terrestrial paradise. (Also stranded in town, other symbols of America’s past and future: A group of cowboy singers led by Rupert Friend, including musicians Seu Jorge and Jarvis Cocker, and a busload of school kids getting their science education from an old-fashioned, pious young woman played by Maya Hawke.) But Augie is also tempted to dump his kids on his father-in-law who loathes him (Tom Hanks, playing a successful old WASP and looking like he might be in the middle of a round of golf at any given moment). Maybe alone is all Augie can be, and freedom is just another name for nothing left to lose. All the technology does not seem to have a good effect on morality—it’s not reassuring people about what they can do, and it may require them to take responsibility for the cosmos now that the atom and the vastness of space are somehow in the human grasp. Maybe these people are “lost in the cosmos,” having lost their homes as a price for their conquest of nature.