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film review

Asteroid City

Directed by Wes Anderson

Written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola

Starring Jason Schwartzman, Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johansson

Classification PG; 104 minutes

Opens in theatres June 23

Critic’s Pick

Despite all signs pointing to Wes Anderson being a child of the East Coast, the filmmaker was in fact born and raised in Houston. And now, 11 films in, the director has finally come home, setting his latest immaculate production deep in the heart of the Middle of Nowhere, Texas.

Well, the location is actually called Asteroid City, Pop. 87. But it is also – as Anderson’s films have trained fans to expect, at least since his meta-contextual masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel – a titch more complicated than that.

Ostensibly a story about a group of families who gather for a Junior Stargazer convention in the 1950s municipality of the title, Asteroid City opens with a hall-of-mirrors framing device: The comedy we’re about to watch is actually a televised production of a play written by the famed Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), whose life and development process becomes another layer of the narrative. This means that characters are doubled, sometimes tripled, and occasionally cross divisions of mediums and realities. Think of it as the Wes Anderson equivalent of the Marvel multiverse, except entertaining and inventive.

Most of the action is set in the Stargazer-verse, which looks like Anderson’s version of a Looney Tunes episode. As a physical place, Asteroid City is all orange desert and bright blue sky, its landscape horizon only interrupted by jagged crimson cliffs and the occasional mushroom cloud, set off thanks to the nearby nuclear testing facility. Just in case you think the Bugs Bunny of it all is accidental, Anderson at one point has a stop-motion animated roadrunner dash across the scene, all but meep-meep-ing its significance.

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Any way, it is here where a host of characters familiar to the Anderson oeuvre gather, each intent on gazing up at the stars instead of peering into their own soul. There is Midge (Scarlett Johansson), an actress in the Marilyn Monroe mould, who is travelling with her teenage daughter. Gruff Second World War veteran J.J. (Liev Schreiber), meanwhile, is visiting with his Junior Stargazer awardee son, who is constantly seeking new and death-defying dares. Chaperoning a group of grade-schoolers is June (Maya Hawke), who fancies the singing cowboy Montana (Rupert Friend), whose own troupe is passing through (and includes Anderson’s old Life Aquatic troubadour Seu Jorge).

Ahead of the pack, though, is Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a Kubrick-looking war photographer and recent widower who has yet to break the familial tragedy to his four children. These include three adorable triplet schoolgirls and the teenage genius Woodrow (Jake Ryan, who bears such a strong resemblance to the presence and mannerisms of onscreen father that it feels tempting to say the actor was grown in a lab expressly for Asteroid City’s purposes, were he not a bit player in two previous Anderson films). Oh, and then there’s Augie’s gruff father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks), who is forced to hightail it to Texas after Augie’s station wagon breaks down.

Open this photo in gallery:

Scarlett Johansson in Asteroid City.

So far, so Anderson-y: all whimsical tableaus and deadpan gags flying faster than even the savviest of Junior Stargazers could detect. But then things deepen, and not only because the film’s realities start to splinter. As Augie and Midge develop a start-and-stop flirtation, and as a sudden extraterrestrial guest arrives (played by, well, you’ll have to watch to find out), Asteroid City – the place, as much as the film/TV episode/play – becomes a gigantic sandbox for Anderson to dig up, construct, and then destroy his most treasured themes.

The crushing weight of parenthood, the rebellious energy of youth, the incomparable romance of two lost souls finding one another, and the self-imposed pressures of creativity – the entire Anderson psyche is here, splashed out in both scopes of the director’s vision board: widescreen Technicolor, and academy-ratio’d black-and-white.

Anderson brings along his ever-expanding repertory company of performers – including familiar faces Norton, Schreiber, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeffrey Wright and Tony Revolori – but also some especially high-profile newcomers. Add Hanks, Johansson, Hong Chau, Matt Dillon and Steve Carell to the filmmaker’s stable, as each actor so snugly fits into Wes World that they seem to have been comfortably – but, you know, in that faux-stiff kind of way – there the entire time. (Bill Murray sat this one out thanks to COVID-19, with Carell filling in at the last-minute as Asteroid City’s apologetic motel manager.)

And while every actor – including the roughly two-dozen stars who I didn’t have the word count to mention above – is exact and fine-tuned, if there has to be a standout player, it is Schwartzman, who is collaborating with Anderson for the seventh time here. Playing Augie is one thing – the character is the kind of distracted, well-meaning father who Anderson has spent most of his career tinkering with. But it is when Augie is sidestepped in favour of the “actor” playing him, Jones, that Schwartzman gets to reveal the true depths of his performance.

Late in the film, Jones steps out of the theatre in which “Asteroid City” is being staged to get a breath of fresh air, frustrated with his inability to access what drives Augie’s actions. It is then when he encounters the actress (Margot Robbie) who was once cast to play Augie’s deceased wife, but cut during revisions. The ensuing conversation is so fiendishly clever-slash-heartbreaking that it just might be the best thing that Schwartzman, and perhaps Anderson, has ever committed to the screen.

Never mind those infuriating AI-generated “Wes Anderson” trailers littering TikTok and Twitter – Asteroid City proves, once again, that there is so much more to the filmmaker than casual detractors assume. As ever, don’t mess with Texas.

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