With ‘Asteroid City,’ Is Wes Anderson Leaving Fans Behind?



I’ve always been shy when it comes to writing about Wes Anderson, because he’s a filmmaker I rarely connect with. When I watch one of his movies, I can’t help but see his talent (the visual wizardry, the debonair lapidary cleverness), but I feel like I’m experiencing something that was made on a different planet from the one I live on. I have felt that way from his very first feature, “Bottle Rocket” (1996), and I really felt it at the Toronto Film Festival in 1998 when I saw “Rushmore” — because everyone there did a backflip of ecstasy, already hailing Anderson as the filmmaker of his generation, and I didn’t get it.

I mean, I kind of saw what people were talking about: that “Rushmore” was like “The Graduate” for the new millennium, that the Jason Schwartzman hero had a formidable Holden Caulfield-gone-meta-deadpan attitude that was equal parts devious and desperate, that the Bill Murray character seemed the apotheosis of Bill Murray, and other things. But the bottom line for me is that “Rushmore,” on some essential chemical cinematic level, was too flip, too ironic, too whimsical, too in love with its cheeky postmodern self, and (yes, let’s use the word! How could we not?) too twee.   

So alone did I feel in this perception, so shut out of the Wes Anderson cool-kid club, that as a critic I almost felt like I needed to launch my own club. My fear at the time was that Anderson, with his relentlessly stylized music-video-meets-Salinger-meets-indie-hipster-absurdist sensibility, represented a virus that could kill movies. I envisioned an entire generation of Wes Anderson clones, turning movies into cutesy dioramas from hell.

My hysteria calmed down reasonably quickly. Three years later, when I saw Anderson’s big follow-up, “The Royal Tenenbaums,” I recognized that he was actually a wily storyteller who, though he staged a film like a demented museum curator, could devise a character as rich as Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum, who gave the movie a rueful spiky emotional center. I still wasn’t exactly an Anderson aficionado, but my hater days were behind me.

In 2009, Anderson did something that delighted me: He made “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” an outrageously droll stop-motion animated comedy, which seemed (for many reasons) to be the ideal form for his self-conscious sensibility. I liked it better than any of his live-action films. And then, in 2014, Anderson did something that, to my great surprise, blew me away: He made “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” the first movie of his that I all-out loved. It was a wildly enthralling Old World caper-thriller-adventure, featuring the most brilliant performance in any Anderson film (by Ralph Fiennes). Was I now (gulp!)…a fan?

I was, with caution, almost willing to call myself one. But it’s precisely as a Wes Anderson skeptic-turned-born-again-admirer that I now want to issue a warning. Namely: For the first time since the middle-aught days of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and “The Darjeeling Limited,” Anderson seems to be disappearing down a rabbit hole. A rabbit hole of pure insular Wes Anderson minutiae passing itself off as art.

Two years ago, “The French Dispatch,” his wildly overstuffed compendium of three short stories, was equal parts beguiling and overwhelming. I met the film halfway (it had funny and trenchant observations to make about modern art and the armchair radicalism of Paris 1968), but it was still too much of an overly thought-out thing.

Okay, it was just one movie. But now Anderson has come out with “Asteroid City,” which has earned mixed reviews but is in the middle of a staggering opening-weekend box-office performance. It’s a film that no true Wes follower would miss. Yet it’s a movie lodged so far inside its own Wes Anderson-ness that it never comes out the other side. It’s like “The French Dispatch” cubed. And coming on the heels of that one, it raises a question (or, at least, I’ll raise it): Is Wes Anderson still an entertainer, or is he becoming a fashion-victim fetishist of his own aesthetic? What you feel watching “Asteroid City” is Anderson doubling down on everything that has alienated viewers like me from so many of his films.

Maybe I’m the wrong messenger to say that. But the real message is: This time, I don’t think it’s just me.


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