ASTEROID CITY: Wes Anderson, the Universe, and Everything

Wes Anderson is known for his precision, to understate matters. So it’s striking when, early in Asteroid City, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) tells his four children that they’re going to stay with their grandfather on their recently deceased mother’s side for “an unspecified period of time that has yet to be determined.” This fumbling redundancy isn’t a one-off verbal joke, either, or confined to just this one character (though he does it again at least once more). Throughout the movie, characters add extra clauses and repetitions onto their sentences (“I wonder if I wish I should’ve”), even more noticeable than Anderson’s favorite go-to words and phrases (a nonchalant “anyway” being perhaps the most frequently used).

This inexactitude, exactingly portrayed, could be chalked up to an affectation of fictional playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), but even this is uncertain: The framing device is not precisely a production of Earp’s play Asteroid City, but a theatrical-style live-television production of a play about Earp writing Asteroid City. So, we see black-and-white TV-square footage of a host (Bryan Cranston) introducing various scenes of Earp and his associates, and then we see most of the action of Earp’s  Asteroid City, portrayed in full widescreen color – and what color! Some of the most vivid pastels and richest yet lightest sky blues I’ve ever seen! – as a feature film unencumbered by the physical limitations of a TV set.

Though of course, all of this was still performed on an actually-elaborate film set meant to create a kind of hyperreal version of the American desert in 1955. Scarlett Johansson’s character is a movie star – which means she is an actress, playing an actress, playing an actress. And on it goes. Is Anderson, following the nested stories of The Grand Budapest Hotel and the magazine construction of The French Dispatch, performing the narrative equivalent of his newly redundant sentences? How many hats can balance on top of how many hats?

The answer: A miraculous number of hats in a miraculous movie. It may not be his best, because of the stiff competition. It is certainly not his “Wes Andersoniest,” to quote the collective hackwork of many, many reviews of his last six films at least. (That title is an eleven-way tie. Maybe ten.) But what it may be is his fullest, his most encompassing work. It is one hour and forty-five minutes. The new Transformers movie is twenty minutes longer.

The cast, as has become his custom, sprawls with his most frequent collaborators and some brand new ones. Schwartzman, who has gone from lovesick teenage achiever (his “over” and “under” cancel each other out) in Rushmore to feckless twentysomething in The Darjeeling Limited to an adult father frozen with grief, is the center of the story, but a full universe orbits around him, before you even get to the frames within frames. Auggie’s teenage son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) is receiving an award for his scientific invention at a Junior Stargazers convention in a desert town (population 87); four other teenagers are receiving similar honors, including Dinah Campbell (Grace Edwards), whose mother is the vaguely Marilyn-ish movie star Midge Campbell (Johansson). We meet the other teenagers, and their chaperones; a schoolteacher (Maya Hawyke) with her class, on a field trip; the manager (Steve Carell) of the briefly overtaxed desert motel where everyone is staying; various authority figures conferring scientific and/or military honor upon the ceremonies (including an officious and hilarious Jeffrey Wright, the French Dispatch MVP back for a victory lap); Auggie’s gruff father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), a bunch of acting students played by some of the same actors, and more.

The result is that some very fine performers have some very small parts; fans of talents as varied as Willem Dafoe, Hong Chau, Jeff Goldblum, Margot Robbie, or Matt Dillon might come away disappointed at their scant screen time or singularity of purpose. Yet Asteroid City also achieves a rare feeling of collective acting; it’s never been evident how much Anderson adores actors, in all of their accent-shifting fakeness and artistic angst and earnest desire to connect. So yes, there are standout members of the cast with more fully realized characters; Schwartzman and Johansson both get to play with the woundedness beneath various placid affectations. But really, the cast syncs together like dancers. The bigger Anderson’s ensembles get, the more deftly he seems to move between them, constructing long pans that function like classic comic strips: sophisticated drawings in service of some very silly and very funny gags. (A personal favorite: the teenage prodigy who nonetheless starts many human interactions with an unpromising “dare me?”) His Peanuts influence remains – at multiple points, he poses Johansson in the windowpane of her tiny motel cabin like Charlie Brown and Linus chatting on the brick wall – and he adds to it some overt nods to Looney Tunes: Across an impossibly beautiful desert backdrop that looks brightly painted like something Wile E. Coyote might scheme up crosses a stop-motion roadrunner.

There are likely more sophisticated allusions at play, too, that don’t speak directly to tastes I formulated as an eight-year-old; the framing device apparently riffs a bit on Tennessee Williams, and even a decided non-scholar like me recognized a version of the Actors’ Studio. The movie also ventures into Spielberg territory; the temporary denizens of Asteroid City have a, uh, close encounter, and the government throws everyone into lockdown. Auggie seems less bothered than some others, because grief has already left him in a sort of purgatory, at one point openly admitting that he’s considered (carefully, methodically, and only after insuring their well-being) abandoning his family (which also includes three very headstrong, very tiny daughters, possibly this movie’s version of Macbeth’s three witches). Woodrow, meanwhile, feels both alive and unsettled with possibility, questioning our place in the cosmos and sheer number of unanswered questions that have materialized in front of him so quickly.

If this sounds heady, well, at times it is, and I’m sure some will read the movie’s extensive framing devices (which take up a not-insubstantial portion of its runtime) as a way of Anderson maintaining his distance from any unseemly trippiness—keeping his characters under another layer of glass, to not-quite-quote another popular canard about his work. Yet (for me, anyway) the black-and-white sequences don’t put the rest of the movie under a dramaturgical microscope or place them in a display case. Like Anderson’s moving comic strips, these frames expand his fastidious arrangements into something larger and more complicated – beyond, even, the stunning technical achievement of a production that actually designs, builds, and photographs this stuff, though that shouldn’t be discounted either. The television scenes have some of the stripped-down simplicity Anderson’s critics claim to want, while still performing an unlikely magic trick: Somehow, the sequences that all but underline that the sci-fi parts of the movie are completely made up also make that material seem all the brighter and, in their stylized way, more real.

Most of these shifts occur in between designated scenes or acts, nice and neat. Late in the film, there is a more explicit fourth-wall break, as Schwartzman shifts from Auggie to actor (or maybe actor playing the actor? I’m honestly not sure), and the movie goes backstage of the play-within-show-within-movie to follow his crisis of faith in his abilities: “Am I doing him right?” he asks, referring to Auggie’s character. It could have been a moment of self-satire, or a mockery of actorly vanity (especially considering the discussion of Schwartzman/Auggie’s mannerisms). Maybe it is that, a little bit, but the temporary step back, abruptly stripping down Schwartzman’s face, is like a dam quietly breaking. The scenes that follow are tremendously moving. Death has haunted most of Anderson’s films in one form or another; here, grief and artistic ambition (the ambition to do anything, really; for Anderson, any obsession is essentially art for art’s sake) both give way to a feeling of cosmic smallness and uncertainty that we’ll do our lives justice. We set impossible, ridiculous tasks for ourselves, and have so little time to accomplish them. Why not add some extra words and clauses, to keep the uncertainty alive a little longer?