The year is 1951 and the location a camp dotted with cabins and astronomic equipment, in an unspecified part of the US drylands. War photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) attends the event with his four children, only to break the news that their mother has passed away. He has brought has brought her ashes in a tupperware. His father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) offers to lend a hand with the bereavement, despite confessing that he feels no affiliation toward sthe recent widower. The children are virtually unmoved by the shocking news, and instead forge ahead with galactic interests, constantly engaging in games, music and experiments.
There is a touch of romance in the air. Well, detached romance that is. A very unemotional Augie (his facial expression barely changes, his wooden pipe permanently attached to the right side of his mouth) snaps twice-divorcee Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) with his photo device. At first, the lady questions why he took pictures of her without asking for permission, but she eventually spurs the stranger to shoot her as often as he likes. They never touch each other, their connecting remaining entirely visual. They chat to each other from their cabin windows, keeping a respectable distance of at least a couple of metres.
Virtually every character of Asteroid City behaves likes a fast-rambling, unemotional robot. They deliver extensive rants and challenge each other with the vigour and vim of a eunuch in an orgy. The Brainiac children (such accolade is indeed bestowed upon them) display their knowledge of astronomy, history, etc by talking to each other in a deadpan conversation style. A little bit like Sheldon Cooper and Doctor Leonard Hofstadter of the Big Bang theory, except that the television series is a lot funnier and more engaging. These are all Wes Anderson’s trademarks, and fans with an acquired taste are guaranteed to appreciate this joyless bacchanalia of directorial idiosyncrasies. Such is not the case with myself. I fight back in order to control my antipathy of such antics. I find Asteroid City mostly cold and boring.
These eccentric characters often break the fourth wall, and Anderson (who also penned the film script, alongside Roman Coppola) inserts an extra layer of metalanguage, literally turning the story into a play. Stage and backstage action are distinguished through a clever use of colours, regularly alternating between pastel hues and black and white. The vintage feel is successfully retained throughout the film, a mean feat for a director with string of quirky and visually accomplished flicks under his belt. The immaculate art direction deserves unequivocal praise. The animation scenes provide the final touch of fantastical absurdity to Anderson’s most otherworldly incursion to date. The spaceship and the very curious alien landing on Earth are the biggest highlights.
It isn’t just the sky of Asteroid City that’s populated with shiny celestial bodies. The movie has a star-studded ensemble cast: In addition to Schwartzman, Hanks and Johansson, Tilda Swindon, Matt Dillon, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Adrien Brody and even Jarvis Cocker (!!!) make an appearance. You are invited to identify each one of these artists: they are often disguised in costumes and make-up that make them barely recognisable. That’s probably the most entertaining thing to do throughout this 104-minute film. Says a die-hard non-fan of Wes Anderson.
Asteroid City premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. In cinemas on Friday, June 23rd.