‘Asteroid City’ Review: Scarlett Johansson Leads Stacked Ensemble That Gets Marooned in Cloying Wes Anderson Whimsy

New additions to the director’s informal repertory company in this cosmic comedy about love, family and precocious geniuses also include Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Hong Chau and Margot Robbie.

With apologies to Guns N’ Roses: Don’t take me down to the Asteroid City / Where the tropes are tired and the gags ain’t witty / Make it stop (Oh, won’t you please make it stop).

To clarify an important point upfront, I’m no Wes Anderson hater. I get that he’s the most parody-able of contemporary American directors, with his taste for painstakingly designed retro-theatrical artifice, for boxes within narrative boxes, for framing and camera movement choices identifiable from a mile away, characters that drip drolleries and plots that plunge fearlessly into manneristic preciousness. But when all the elements click into place, Anderson’s manicured worlds can be enchanting places to visit. Or they can be suffocating constructs that wring all the charm out of his signature storytelling style. Which brings us to Asteroid City.

Premiering in the main Cannes competition ahead of its June 23 release through Focus, the archly cutesy new film joins the ranks of Anderson’s more distancing work, notably The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou.

The writer-director seldom seems more self-satisfied than when he’s spinning his wheels. Anderson has always been like a smart kid playing in a hermetically sealed sandbox of quirky action figures and quaint toys. Here, that’s quite literally the case as he strands a bunch of people in 1955 in a tiny fictitious desert town in the American Southwest with a population of 87, isolating them there after an alien encounter that prompts the government to step in and impose military quarantine.

At the center of all the excitement is a precociously brilliant group of young teenagers accompanied by their parents to a Junior Stargazers convention, where they will be honored for their wacky scientific inventions at a ceremony held in the basin of a huge meteorite crater.

Throw in Tilda Swinton as an eccentric astronomer bestowing an annual scholarship on a lucky space cadet, and what could be more Anderson-esque, right? In theory yes, but it’s hard to engage with characters and situations that feel so studied, so stuck in a script that rarely allows them any emotional development — especially when the director himself seems so removed from them.

The chief exceptions are Augie Steinbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a recently widowed war photographer, and Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a movie star who has a history with violent men. In exchanges neatly framed by the facing windows of their bungalows at the Motor Court Motel, a fleeting but intense romantic connection develops. At the same time, young love blossoms between their respective children, Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and Dinah (Grace Edwards).


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button