A train rattles across a dusty plain carrying atomic weapons and assorted 1950s insignia. On the highway, cops and robbers periodically appear and exchange gunfire, as if enacting an animation loop. A roadrunner, making something approximating a “meep meep” sound, occasionally wanders into the frame. A wall of vending machines offers cigarettes, soda and real-estate options.
From the get-go, Asteroid City – an exhibit of period-specific Americana – feels as if it ought to be one of Wes Anderson’s animated projects, without necessarily being as engrossing as its genre predecessors Fantastic Mr Fox and Isle of Dogs.
And if you thought French Dispatch plumped for style over substance, hold on to your hat for this metatextual collection of doodles and famous actors that wilfully refuses to yield to a narrative shape.
The largest matryoshka doll in the set is Bryan Cranston’s Rod Serling-ish monochrome television host. He introduces Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), a gay writer surrounded by erotic cowboy-themed art, and the author of a play set in the title’s very teal and orange locale.
That pit stop, as defined by a 12-stool luncheonette, a one-pump filling station, a crater, a population of 87, and a motel, hosts various young boffins who have converged for a Junior Stargazer/Space Cadet convention.
The event brings together the tragic Marilyn Monroe-alike actor Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), the Ernest Hemingway-alike war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and their various offspring, cowboys, military and whatever you’re having.
The occasion is doubly, triply interrupted by a UFO landing, a subsequent government lockdown and debriefing, and wall-breaking inserts concerning Jones Hall (Schwartzman, again) and Mercedes Ford (Johansson again), the actors who play Midge and Augie, and their cohorts back east.
As Asteroid City – that is to say, the cartoonish drama within the drama – opens, Augie’s car breaks down, and he calls his father-in-law, Zak (Tom Hanks), to pick up his young scientist son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and three daughters.
Augie has yet to tell their children that their mother has died. This smaller family crisis is surrounded by a dizzying number of characters. Blink and you might miss Jeffrey Wright’s general, Tilda Swinton’s astronomer, Jeff Goldblum’s alien and Maya Hawke’s Clementinian schoolmarm. Margot Robbie is a footnote and a photograph. Willem Dafoe’s Stanislavski-ersatz Saltzburg Keitel begs for an acting studio movie to call his own.
Anderson’s 11th movie is simultaneously furiously busy and curiously uneventful. The director’s trademark deadpan silences have seldom felt longer. Interesting self-reflexive ideas, including Johansson playing an actor playing an actor, feel underdeveloped. Tableaux in dialogue with Bus Stop and The Misfits add to the knot. A diorama overdose scene is emblematic of the carefully calibrated subplot.
Against that, the film is an aesthetic triumph, a gorgeous gallimaufry of artefacts from the golden age of American technocracy, Looney Toons and westerns.
Imagine 1950s fan fiction meets Sam Shepard, masterfully curated, and replete with all your favourite tropes and characters.
A lovely moment features Hanks’s grandpa and Augie’s near-feral daughters, Andromeda, Pandora and Cassiopeia. The girls’ overlapping dialogue and mad chatter about witches and vampires make for welcome anarchy in a very mannered world.
If you’re old enough to remember the giddy early days of Anderson’s career, you might see Asteroid City and think it would be nice to return to the engaging interpersonal dynamics of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. Diehard fans will be delighted, nonetheless.
Asteroid City was in competition in Cannes; it opens in cinemas on Friday, June 23rd