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Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Asteroid City (2023)

It's the way in which he uses physical things and precise language that makes him so easy to parody, but that is also his appeal. Wes Anderson is the only director currently working with such a clear visual style that it can be endlessly parodied without any further explanation. This is his gift but as “Asteroid City” makes clear, also his curse. Mr. Anderson is a sensitive, thoughtful director of grief and disappointment, but his messages of the need of kindness and the importance of true human connection are often lost under his aesthetic. That aesthetic overshadows how actors are fighting to work for him even in the smallest of parts; his gentle sense of humor is overlooked; and his willingness to explore even the tiniest detail within a frame makes his movies treasures which can be continually revisited without sound. On the other hand, deep in the credits of his newest offering, there’s mention of a yodelling consultant. So he’s on the verge of becoming a parody of himself.

Fortunately with this sweet tale of family, second chances and alienation in the Nevada desert, he stays on the right side of the line. Asteroid City (pop. 87) built itself around its asteroid; and the Steenbeck family – photographer father Augie (Jason Schwartzman), teenage son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and three triplet daughters all named after constellations (Ella, Gracie and Willan Faris) – arrive for a ceremony at which Woodrow and other similarly gifted teenager scientists will receive awards for their work. Among the other families are movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards). Augie’s wife has recently died, a fact he has been unable to bring himself to tell the children, to the dismay of his father-in-law, Stanley (Tom Hanks), while Midge is feeling stuck in her career and wondering about her choices. (Ms. Johansson has spent her entire adult career exploring what it means to move through the world in a body like hers; and it’s admirable how consistently she is able both to have her cake and eat it.) Augie and Midge find themselves drawn to each other, much to their surprise, as do Woodrow and Dinah, to no one’s.

There’s also a general (Jeffrey Wright, who elevates everything he touches), an astronomer (Tilda Swinton), several other parents (Liev Schreiber first among them), the motel manager (Steve Carell), the mechanic (Matt Dillon), a school group of precocious children, their teacher (Maya Hawke, who sounds exactly like her mother) and a stranded Western band headed by Montana (Rupert Friend, whose casting is hilarious, though he doesn’t embarrass himself). But lest you relax at the simplicity of this set-up, “Asteroid City” is actually a play, written by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and directed by Schubert Green (Adrien Brody); and the movie is the story of the play as narrated by Bryan Cranston, though with enough backstage interludes to introduce Hong Chau as Schubert’s ex-wife, Willem Dafoe as a dramaturg and Margot Robbie as a role not to be spoiled. It’s a murderer’s row of talent; and no other director working can possibly attract so many big names for such small parts on what were undoubtedly only his terms. And still they came. Milena Canonero, who has four Oscars, did the costumes; Adam Stockhausen did the production design; Robert Yeoman did the cinematography; and Barney Pilling edited it all together into a thoroughly charming confection about what happens when you see something unexpected. Only Richard Linklater comes close in the Western world to having such a playful outlook on animation and how it can be integrated into flesh-and-blood film, but the way in which Mr. Anderson uses his animation to anthropomorphize the impossible (such as the whole of “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”) is entirely his own. All the other aspects of his vision – the framing, surprisingly frank snatches of sexuality, how parents disappoint you, the loneliness of clever children and a sharp eye for minor peril that isn’t so minor after all – are present and correct, but there’s just so much of it. Most movies have so few ideas they don’t know how to complete a third act, but here there’s enough room left over for an epilogue complete with dancing roadrunner (you heard me).

If things were slightly pared back, would it have been more enjoyable? Has the style flown as high as it can go; and should it come crashing back to earth sooner rather than later? That is the question for Mr. Anderson’s next film – which will be no doubt the turning point of his career, no matter which way he goes – but as it is “Asteroid City” is a moodily joyous confection about the impossible coming true. And when the big scene comes – and you’ll know the one when you see it – the entire cinema will hold its breath, in surprise and sympathy, as they did at the Cannes Film Festival. Let other people complain all they want. Mr. Anderson has the substance to match his style.


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