Asteroid City

After the host (Bryan Cranston) of a b&w Playhouse 90-like broadcast tells us we are watching a show about a play being performed on the East Coast’s Tarkington Theater by a writer from Wyoming, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), we are transported into cinematic, widescreen color just as war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) arrives with his three young daughters, Andromeda, Pandora, and Cassiopeia, and his adolescent son Woodrow (Jake Ryan, "Moonrise Kingdom"), one of five Junior Stargazers to be awarded during weekend events honoring them in “Asteroid City.”

Laura's Review: A

As soon as we’re introduced to Asteroid City, Pop. 87, via a 360 degree shot, we know we are in the world of writer/director Wes Anderson (sharing a story by credit with Roman Coppola).  The city, built on location in Spain in an area the size of a football field that utilizes forced perspective for its vast horizon, is comprised of a motor court, a luncheonette, gas station and a highway ramp that goes nowhere (try to read the signs, gags are everywhere).  Augie pulls up in a vintage woodie, ‘French Press International’ stenciled onto its paneled side (has he been dispatched?), that conks out upon arrival, mechanic Hank (Matt Dillon) suggesting a part replacement which will bear an uncanny resemblance to something arriving later from another world.  On the outskirts of town are its tourist attractions, a celestial observatory and a huge meteor crater and in the distance we see rock formations not unlike “Close Encounters’” Devil’s Tower.  It is 1955.

As the other families begin to arrive, Augie takes his into the luncheonette where he spies movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) at the other end of the counter and surreptitiously takes her photograph.  But she’s seen him and asks why he didn’t ask permission.  Woodrow begins to make eyes at her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards, "Call Jane"), another award winning Star Gazer.

These two adults are this vast ensemble’s main characters and when the man who takes pictures for a living finds his cabin directly across from the woman who makes hers being photographed, the symbiotic relationship will result in an affair.  Each has somewhat odd relationships with their children, Augie, having been unable to tell his their mother (Margot Robbie) died two weeks earlier and having called his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) to come pick up the girls; Midge admitting she has other daughters who she doesn’t see very often.  We will also learn that playwright Earp pursued Mercedes Ford to play Midge, perhaps as a gift to Jones Hall, the actor playing Augie who he appears to have deep feelings for.

“Asteroid City” is so dense with ideas, characters and plotting (not to mention its multiple media perspectives), it is the type of film that will only become richer with additional viewings.  Anderson reflects on grief, romantic love, parent/child relationships and artistic expression all while entertaining us with his signature deadpan absurdist comedy.  While most of the action takes place in the titular location, Anderson will occasionally ‘peak behind the curtain,’ showing us the actors as themselves, or backstage at the Tarkington where director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) sleeps over for all 785 performances, occasioning a visit from his wife Polly (Hong Chau) who advises him to have Midge say a line after she’s shut the door, saying it while leaving it and shutting the door.  It is here that we will see Jones Hall discussing the scene with the actress who played his wife (Robbie) which was cut from the play, her only representation in the finished project a snapshot of her posing saucily in a wading pool on a fire escape.

The film, shot during the pandemic, can also be seen as a reflection of that, General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) declaring a quarantine when an alien lands during a group gathered to view an astronomical ellipsis.  This event had been being led by the observatory’s Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton), a scientist so befuddled by her facility’s light board, she jumps at Woodrow’s suggestion that it might be a galactic calendar.  Earlier the General had conducted a ceremony to award the Star Gazers, Woodrow winning a medal for his device which projects images onto the moon (an American flag for demonstration purposes, his and Dinah’s initials later).  The children fare best restricted to city limits, Andromeda, Pandora, and Cassiopeia burying their mother’s ashes in a Tupperware bowl, the Star Gazers playing a memory game and others being taught in an outdoor makeshift class by June Douglas (Maya Hawke) when she isn’t being romanced by singing cowboy Montana (Rupert Friend).

The ensemble is an embarrassment of riches, Schwartzman’s glum portrayal paired with perfect comic timing (he fills his lighter using the gas station’s single pump), Johansson the picture of period pinup (including a brief nude scene for Augie’s next door benefit).  The cast also includes Ethan Josh Lee, Clifford Kellogg and “It’s” Sophia Lillis as the other Star Gazers; Steve Park, Liev Schreiber and Hope Davis as their parents; Tony Revolori as Gibson’s Aide de Camp; Steve Carell as the motel’s manager; Willem Dafoe as acting instructor Saltzburg Keitel; Jarvis Cocker, who cowrote original song ‘Dear Alien’ with Anderson, as a singing cowboy; Bob Balaban as Hickenlooper’s corporate underwriter and Jeff Goldblum purportedly as the alien(?!).

The production is aces all around, Adam Stockhausen’s production design recalling his work on “Isle of Dogs” and features one of the funniest aliens ever realized for a movie.  Director of Photography Robert Yeoman distinguishes Anderson’s different perspectives with changing aspect ratios and teases forced perspective to the brink of reality without crossing into it.  His cross-hatched, dappled lighting of a picnic supper under a wooden trellis is magical.  Film editor Barney Pilling cuts with comic timing highlighted by Alexandre Desplat's plinking piano.  Costume Designer Milena Canonero completes the picture helping to establish Johannson’s bombshell persona, the writer, Norton, in the most Andersonesque kiddie cowboy patterned jacket.       

“Asteroid City” may just be the most Wes Anderson movie Wes Anderson has ever made.

Focus Features releases "Asteroid City" in NY and LA on 6/16/23, expanding on 6/23/23.