Scarlett Johansson and Jason Schwartzman in Asteroid City


Not a half-hour after the end credits rolled on Wes Anderson's Asteroid City, I met friends for dinner, and immediately raved about the delightful, clever, moving entertainment I had just seen. They asked whether I was feeling antsy to write about the experience, and I didn't have to think about my answer before blurting it out: “No. Not at all.” Where, I figured, would I even begin in amassing – let alone publishing – thoughts on a work that's about nothing less than the meaning of existence, to say nothing of a film whose most gut-bustingly riotous sequence is also one that made me weep like a baby?

For that matter, how could I describe Asteroid City's narrative without making writer/director Anderson sound like a lunatic? Or making myself sound insane for trying? Because really, this should've been simple. The meat of the material takes place in 1955 in the fictional, titular desert town of the American Southwest. Modestly well-known as the site of a meteorite crash some five thousand years ago, Asteroid City and its population of 87 are welcoming the five winners of a national Junior Stargazer competition – teen brainiacs whose scientific inventions (one of them an actual '50s-sci-fi ray gun) the U.S. government is almost certainly planning to steal. With Anderson's dramatis personae including the kids, their families, the townsfolk, and a few military men officiating the awards presentation, this thing is already chockablock with opportunities for its creator's signature whimsy, eccentricity, and geometric stylization. Its cast list, meanwhile, could fill a mid-size textbook, and appears to feature every living, dues-paying member of SAG except Anderson mainstay Bill Murray. (A positive COVID-19 test reportedly prevented the actor from participating, and Steve Carell – a more-than-adequate substitute – stepped into Murray's role.)

Bryan Cranston in Asteroid City

Yet this setup with its comfortable, easily identifiable three-act structure is only part of the story, as Anderson's latest also boasts a frequently disruptive (in a good way) framing device in which all expectations for clear A-to-B-to-C progression go right out the window (also in a good way). Before we're introduced to Asteroid City and its widescreen, sun-baked, pastel-hued lusciousness, we're greeted – in black-and-white, in a boxy Academy-ratio presentation – by Bryan Cranston, mustachioed yet doing his very best Rod Serling impression. He identifies himself of the host of a TV program that will document, in theatrical form, the origins of a long-running New York play – one titled Asteroid City. The host introduces us to the work's legendary author Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), who proceeds to both describe the genesis of his stage opus and act in scenes detailing its creation. We also meet members of the play's ensemble, among them castmates portrayed by the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, and Jeffrey Wright … who also appear as the “real people” involved in the central narrative unfurling in the desert.

So, you may rightfully ask, what in the name of God is going on here? I wish I could provide a definitive answer. From what I can glean, Asteroid City – the Wes Anderson one we're paying to see – is a cinematic representation of the dialogue and action from a '50s stage play whose making-of documentary is its own stage play that's being presented as a live television program. I'm 90-percent sure I'm right about that. Then again, my take doesn't account for why Cranston, looking deeply confused, momentarily finds his B&W figure in the desert, and in full color, no less. Or why Schwartzman's TV star is able to leave the confines of his set, and the scene's “reality,” to converse with Margot Robbie on an adjoining pair of Manhattan balconies. Or why the longest uninterrupted stretch of screen time is devoted, blissfully, to a roadrunner dancing to the 1957 hit “Freight Train.”

My advice? Just go with it. Though the movie likely sounds bullet-to-the-brain confusing, it really isn't; Anderson's many, many plot conceits are easy to follow on a scene-by-scene basis, and if you can will yourself onto the auteur's distinct philosophical wavelength, there's actually deep internal logic behind how the puzzle pieces eventually fit. That said, I certainly empathize with viewers who might prefer a more streamlined production that jettisoned the behind-the-curtain shenanigans and stuck to desert-bound matters: the tragicomic bond between Schwartzman's war photographer Augie and Johansson's haunted starlet Midge; the burgeoning romance between their teen geniuses Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and Dinah (Grace Edwards); the subterfuge of the kids' Goonies-esque fellow stargazers (Ethan Josh Lee, Sophia Lillis, and Aristou Meehan); the nonplussed cocktail swilling of those youths' parents (Stephen Park, Hope Davis, and Liev Schreiber); Hanks' grouchy decency as Augie's father-in-law; Swinton's hopeful wonder as a seeker of UFOs; Wright's awkward command as a loquacious Army general.

Jason Schwartzman in Asteroid City

Yet despite the deadpan hilarity and lightly aching buried emotion delivered in the desert sequences, I think we need the film's black-and-white segments. Not only do they provide context for why our “main” characters say and feel what they do, but they expand the material so that Asteroid City isn't just about a bunch of quirky souls in the desert who – through a delirious plot turn I won't spoil – suddenly find themselves questioning the nature of everything. The TV-studio-and-beyond material reminds us that it doesn't take an earth-shaking development to make us routinely question the hows and whys of life. And while we're being tickled by composer Alexandre Desplat's score and cinematographer Robert Yeoman's vivid color schemes and gliding tracking shots (plus the solely B&W performances of Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Hong Chau, and others), the stage-bound set pieces allow us to view, and connect with, the supple, lonely heartache at the saga's core.

Don't get me wrong: This sublimely written and acted comedy is oftentimes funny as hell, and I'm still giggling at the row of vending machines that sells tracts of land next to the soda pop, as well as that unexpectedly gracious pose for an unexpectedly historic photo. For all of its ephemeral treats, though, Anderson's achievement, like all of his finest ones, is a deceptively rich offering that you take home with you, and for days after, and for potential weeks and years ahead. There may wind up being no more poignant, pointed moment in 2023 movies than that of Schwartzman plaintively admitting “I don't understand this play,” and seeking assistance with a question that made me instantly well up: “Am I doing it right?” Asteroid City is Wes Anderson doing it all sorts of right.

Jennifer Lawrence in No Hard Feelings


Thirty-two-year old Jennifer Lawrence plays The Older Woman in writer/director Gene Stupnitsky's No Hard Feelings, and if that information makes you a teensy bit queasy, you should know that this R-rated comedy isn't anywhere near as tasteless as its trailers suggested – nor as tasteless as some of us may have wanted. Yes, the film is about helicopter parents who hire Lawrence's waitress and Uber driver Maddie to deflower their 19-year-old-virgin son Percy (Andrew Barth Feldman) before he leaves the nest and attends his first year at Princeton. Yet despite the harsh language, a few salty references, and a completely unnecessary sequence in which Lawrence goes full-frontal while attacking a trio of beach louts, the movie's overriding tone is overwhelmingly sweet. Too sweet, it turns out, for the movie's own good.

Or maybe it's the other way around, and Stupnitsky's followup to 2019's much nastier, much more successful middle-school slapstick Good Boys should have been a PG-rated platonic romance all along. For a considerable stretch, the movie definitely succeeds as one. After the establishment of No Hard Feelings' central conceit – one that finds Maddie financially compelled to act as a prostitute in exchange for a used Buick Regal (!) – Lawrence's and Feldman's characters have a Meet Not-So-Cute at the animal shelter where Percy works, and Maddie's attempts at canine-themed hot talk lead to indifference by the former and obvious self-loathing by the latter. (Lawrence does some of her best work voicelessly reacting to Maddie's own implausibility or the accidental insults of others; lukewarm though I am on the film, my time was well-spent watching the performer's silent, venomous fury when a high-school senior addressed her with “ma'am.”) But because Maddie isn't stupid – despite her many gifts, I'm not sure Jennifer Lawrence could believably play stupid – she quickly realizes that Percy isn't the weird, creepy, socially obtuse basket case his parents presume he is. He's not Eddie Deezen's Eugene in Grease. He's more like Brian Backer's Mark “Rat” Ratner in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Shy and self-conscious, to be sure, but smart and friendly and a surprisingly forthcoming conversationalist, as well as someone who would actually quite willingly lose his virginity to Maddie … as long as they were in love.

What we consequently get in No Hard Feelings is an endearing, unexpectedly soulful near-romance that has to keep reminding itself that it should be louder, dumber, and more desperate than it seemingly wants to be. There are a few amusing physical gags at Maddie's expense, as when Percy, believing (understandably) that he's being kidnapped, maces the woman in the face, and when he attempts to defend her honor by accidentally punching her in the neck. These bits were dutifully included in the trailer, as was the image of Percy retching up the Long Island Iced Tea he thought was alcohol-free. Barring, however, a couple of additional toss-ins – including Lawrence's beachfront assault and Feldman's not-nearly-equal-opportunity nudity on the hood of Maddie's speeding car – they account for the totality of the film's raunchiness, if not its frequent senselessness. (I'm still annoyed by the sight gag of Maddie perilously climbing the steps to Percy's parents' house in her roller blades, considering she's wearing a backpack with, as we eventually learn, a pair of sensible shoes inside.)

Jennifer Lawrence and Andrew Barth Feldman in No Hard Feelings

I suppose there may have been no way to accurately promote Stupnitsky's comedy without alienating everyone: either you sell it as a subversive laugh-fest and waylay audiences with sentiment, or you market it is a disarmingly tender tale of friendship that just happens to be about a woman in her 30s hired to sexually service a teenager. But once I realized what kind of movie No Hard Feelings – such a waste of a great double entendre title ... – actually was, it became tough to appreciate the film even on its own merits. Lawrence is sharp and supremely game, and Feldman is an outstanding, moony-eyed sparring partner, and there are terrific turns by Matthew Broderick and Laura Bennanti as Percy's folks and The Bear's Ebon Moss-Bachrach as a sad-sack former flame of Maddie's who deserves a movie of his own. There are also unexpectedly beautiful, resonant detours; I was frankly embarrassed by how much my heart swelled listening to Percy serenade Maddie with a low-key piano rendition of Hall & Oates' “Maneater.”

But ultimately, Stupnitsky's movie (co-written by John Phillips) is the timeworn tale of two opposites who learn to Better Themselves and Grow as People and Let Go of the Past. And because it's that kind of movie rather than the other “that kind of movie,” you can pretty much predict the entire plot arc within its first 20 minutes, with most of the last half-hour spent not laughing, not swooning, but merely blandly accepting the earnest, well-acted triteness of it all. Threats of naughty fun notwithstanding, No Hard Feelings is the perfect middling entertainment for a rainy weekend afternoon when you're feeling too lazy to pick up a book.

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