As much as any filmmaker alive, Wes Anderson has a canon of movies that look and feel all of a piece. The diorama design, which extends from his life-size-dollhouse sets to his graphic lettering; the acting so stylized it’s like postmodern jokey-music-video kabuki; the fable-within-a-fable structure that can seem the cinematic equivalent of nested Russian dolls; the heavy frosting of ironic whimsicality. Most of his movies share these elements, yet the truth is that not all Wes Anderson film are alike. A few, like “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” spin finely wrought tales beneath the filigree. One, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” is an exhilarating caper — as well as (to me) his finest work, ironically because it isn’t pretending to be about anything.
Then there are the Anderson films that even most of his fans don’t pretend to like all that much — the fussy, top-heavy, narratively batty yet stretched-thin concoctions like “The Darjeeling Limited” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” “Asteroid City” is one of those, only more so.
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Set in a tiny red-rock Southwest Americana desert town in 1955, it may be the director’s most intricately ornate and fetishistic piece of world-building. Watching the movie, one glories, for a while, in the retro kitsch nostalgia and sheer stylized play that went into the creation of Asteroid City (pop. 87), with its ’40s-meets-’50s diner and motor court and one-pump gas station, its mesas that look like they’re made out of balsa wood, its occasional scrubby cactus, its giant meteorite crater that serves as a tourist attraction, and its intermittent atomic-bomb-test mushroom cloud that goes off in the distance. There are some good jokes, like the row of vending machines that includes one that sells tiny plots of land, as well as archly obvious ones, like the police-vs.-crooks demon car chases that occasionally rip through town.
But if the setting of “Asteroid City” feels succulent in that vintage Anderson way, the scenes and events that unfold there do not. They add up to what may be the filmmaker’s most hyperactive yet coyly obtuse piece of storytelling. There are only a few main characters, but everyone in the movie seems to be reciting from the same turgidly empty-clever Anderson playbook. Jason Schwartzman, in a beard that blands him out, plays Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer who gets stranded in town after his car breaks down. His wife has just died (he’s toting her ashes in Tupperware), and he’s got their four children with him, the oldest of whom, the doleful “brainiac” geek Woodrow (Jake Ryan), is like a one-note knockoff of Max in “Rushmore.”
“Asteroid City” presents itself as a stylized meditation on grief, though it’s not the kind that anyone’s going to shed a tear over. As military officers and astronomers, including the technobabble-happy Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), gather to honor the achievements of the Junior Stargazers (of which Woodrow is one), Augie’s crusty father-in-law (Tom Hanks) shows up, and so does Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a movie star with short brown hair, orange lipstick, and her own hostile hauteur. Did I mention that the lead characters are, at the same time, stage actors who are “playing” these very same roles back in New York in a black-and-white teleplay called “Asteroid City,” presented by The Host (Bryan Cranston)? If your reaction to that is “Huh?” you won’t be alone.
At one point, an alien shows up with a disarming look that consists of popping white eyes and skin that looks like it was made out of a black shower curtain. He disappears in his flying saucer as quickly as he arrived, but this extraterrestrial visit results in Asteroid City being placed under quarantine, which means that everyone who has come to town is trapped there. The audience will know just how that feels. “Asteroid City” looks smashing, but as a movie it’s for Anderson die-hards only, and maybe not even too many of them.
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