Even some of Wes Anderson’s biggest fans have been disappointed by his 2021 movie French Dispatch, with its three-tier structure and serious, self-conscious evocative of French literature. Anderson hasn’t changed his storytelling technique one bit for his new film asteroid citypremiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but his recent detractors will be relieved nonetheless: this is his most enchanting feature since Grand Budapest Hotel almost a decade ago.
As in many of Anderson’s films, the plot comes with multiple framing devices. We first see Bryan Cranston in a black and white suit as the Edward R Murrow-style TV host who introduces us to a serious playwright named Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), who’s working on the story we’re about to see. asteroid city, then, is a movie within a play in a TV show, or something like that. We were soon told it was a “fake fabrication” – and it even had an optional pause.
As soon as the action begins in earnest, the director switches his palette to iridescent Kodak. The main setting is Asteroid City, a desert town in the southwestern United States famous for its observatory and giant meteor crater. The military uses the open plains to test nuclear weapons, while star observers and space students flock here to observe the night sky. Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a pipe-smoking photographer, rolls into town on a scooter carrying his kids. His wife just passed away and he took her ashes with him. Then the car starts up, which means he’s stuck here. The kind but sly local mechanic (starred by Matt Dillon) can’t be helped. Augie asks his father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks), whom he doesn’t know, to drive over and rescue them.
Anderson has assembled one of his huge, familiar casts. Much of the fun here comes from his perfectly calibrated and very stilted performances from his actors, even those who only play supporting roles. Rupert Friend excelled in a cameo as a singing cowboy with beautiful lines in the simple wisdom of folk. Jeffrey Wright is humorous as the grumpy military commander who blocks the town after an alien (Jeff Goldblum) shows up. (The spaceship scene seems to be a gentle parody Close encounters of the third type.) Steve Carrell is the manager of the motel where our heroes are staying, a place where new settlers can buy themselves plots from a vending machine. Tilda Swinton is a scientist in a white coat who aspires to uncover the secrets of the universe.
While junior astrologers are peering through telescopes or having their first experiences of young love, Augie begins a strange romance with Scarlett Johansson’s Midge, a Hollywood star wanted to commit suicide in the cabin across from him. Johansson is brilliant, portraying her character with both sex appeal and pathology.
Many of the actors here are the main cast of Anderson. Newcomers, including late Margot Robbie as a secular stage actor and Maya Hawke as an elementary school teacher, adapt brilliantly to the director’s preferred minimalist comedy style. Some of the best scenes here involve Tom Hanks, freshman Anderson, and his on-screen grandchildren debating exactly what they should do with their mother’s ashes.
In its own way, asteroid city is Anderson’s patchwork of Cold War paranoia and American family values in all their often hypocritical glory. It’s as perfect as his best work, while still trying to tug at the heartbeat.
Directed by: Wes Anderson. Actors: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau , Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum. 12A.
‘Asteroid City’ hits theaters from June 23