Producers: Wes Anderson, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson   Director: Wes Anderson   Screenplay: Wes Anderson   Cast: 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, Grace Edwards, Aristou Meehan, Ethan Josh Lee, Zoe Bernard, Sophia Lillis, Ella Faris, Gracie Faris, Willan Faris and Brayden Frasure   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: B

Wes Anderson’s films are always a visual delight, but sometimes the images’ defiant artificiality, combined with an obsession with narrative intricacy and a default tone of deadpan whimsy, can grow wearyingly studied.  For many that will be the case with his latest, a distillation of Anderson’s idiosyncratic aesthetic so perfectly realized in Adam Stockhausen’s production design, Milena Canonero’s costumes, Robert Yeoman’s cinematography, Tim Ledbury’s visual effects and Barney Pilling’s editing that it becomes an ultra-stylized pictorial puzzle only his ardent devotees will have the stamina (or the inclination) to try to unlock. Yet a willingness to put in the effort will reap rewards.    

Set in 1955, “Asteroid City” begins in black-and-white, with a pompous television announcer (Bryan Cranston) introducing a program purporting to follow the creation of a play by writer Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), who’s shown typing away in his living room.  It then switches to a wide-screen, blazingly colorful version of the eponymous Southwestern town (population 87, and boasting little more than a motel, a gas station, a diner, a goofily unfinished highway ramp, and the remnants of an amusement park), where the action occurs.  The parched, desolate place, with Monument Valley looming in the background and an occasional mushroom cloud from a nuclear test rising in the distance, is named after a meteor that fell nearby some five thousand years earlier and still resides in the crater it left, awaiting lines of tourists.

The fractured narrative (at one point Cranston, now in color, appears by accident in Asteroid City itself, quickly shuffling off in embarrassment at his faux pas) is presented in the form of the play’s three acts, plus an epilogue, each introduced by title cards that suggest an organizational principle that has to be intuited, since it’s never made evident.  One of the few local residents given any prominence is the unnamed manager of the local motel (Steve Carell), whose cabins will house the winners of the year’s government-sponsored Junior Stargazer science awards and their families. 

Among the first to arrive are the Steenbecks, whose car has broken down: war photographer Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and his children: nerdy but brilliant teen son Woodrow (Jake Ryan), one of five Stargazer winners competing for a grand cash prize, and three young daughters (Ella, Gracie and Willan Faris).  After depositing the car with mechanic Hank (Matt Dillon) for possible repair, they register at the motel, where Augie calls his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), to whose house they were traveling, to come and get him and the girls.  Though Augie hasn’t told the children yet, their mother has died, and they’re carrying her ashes in a sealed Tupperware bowl for burial at Stanley’s place.

Shortly thereafter Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a famous but troubled actress, shows up with her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), another Stargazers finalist.  So do the parents of other competitors: grumpy J.J. Kellogg (Liev Schreiber), whose son Clifford (Aristou Meehan) has invented a sort of death ray and is always inviting risk-taking dares; Roger Cho (Steven Park), whose son Ricky (Ethan Josh Lee) proves not just a science wiz but an intrepid whistle-blower; and Sandy Borden (Hope Davis), whose daughter Shelly (Sophia Lillis) excels in the memory game the Junior Stargazers play among themselves.  Then there’s nervous schoolteacher June Douglas (Maya Hawke), who brings a busload of students to attend the ceremonies presided over by intense General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), his aide (Tony Revolori) and famous astronomer Dr. Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton); June’s brood includes over-inquisitive tyke Billy (Brayden Frasure), who prays blessings over everything. Meanwhile June attracts a local admirer, philosophical singing cowpoke Montana (Rupert Friend).

Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that all these folks are stranded in Asteroid City when an unexpected visitor, played after a fashion by Jeff Goldblum, intrudes on a communal gathering to witness a peculiar celestial phenomenon associated with the asteroid, leading to a government lockdown.  During the enforced stay some of them build strong connections—not just June and Montana, but also Augie and Midge on the one hand and Woodrow and Dinah on the other.  None could be considered typical romances.

But that’s only a part of Anderson’s construct.  Schwartzman is also Jonas Hall and Johansson Mercedes Ford, the actors playing Augie and Midge in Earp’s play, and there are glimpses of their “real” lives—the meeting with the playwright that got Hall the job, the insecurity of Ford.  There’s also a sequence with the play’s director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody), whose devotion to his craft has led to divorce from his wife (Hong Chau).  The “backstage” material also includes two characters on fire escapes talking across an alley separating the theatres where they’re performing—mirroring the conversations between Augie and Midge in Asteroid City, which occur through the facing windows of their separate cabins–as well as a visit to Green by Hall, who confesses that he doesn’t understand the play and asks plaintively, “Am I doing it right?”—words that might be echoed by all of the characters on either side of the stage.

The visit to the “real” world also involves a session at an acting school presided over by Green and legendary teacher Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe)—after whom one of the theatres in the “Great White Way” backdrop to Cranston’s narration is named, across from another advertising a play titled “The Death of a Narcissist,” perhaps a reference to narrator Cranston’s off-hand remark about the tragic death of Earp—which concludes with an injunction to the students to fall asleep, followed by the mantra “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep”—which Jarvis Crocker, who also offers a couple of songs earlier amidst Alexandre Desplat’s typically inventive score, intones over the closing credits.

Every viewer will have to work out for himself how all the details and allusions in “Asteroid City” come together—or if they do.  It should be apparent to all that there are substantive underpinnings beneath the quirkiness and artifice on display—questions about life and death, grief and love.  It’s also obvious that the huge ensemble conform to Anderson’s singular vision, both in terms of their precise physical movement and their mannered recitation of his peculiarly arch dialogue; Schwartzman and Johansson are standouts in that regard, adding a sigh of soulfulness to the mix, with only Hanks unable to squelch his instantly recognizable personality as completely as most of the others do (of course Bill Murray, whom he replaced, would have been similarly sui generis). 

But whether you’re blown away by the film or bewildered by it, it’s impossible not to be entranced by its unique look and texture.  It’s another of Anderson’s Fabergé Egg movies, as bejeweled and intricately designed as any he’s made.  You might consider it great art or mere fussy decoration, but in either case it’s dazzling.