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In adjoining motel cabins, Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson remain far apart in Asteroid City. Courtesy Pop. 87 Productions and Focus Features

It’s taken this long for computers to mimic the Wes Anderson style, when humans have been parodying the great Texas filmmaker for more than a decade at least. When you develop maybe the most distinctive visual language in cinema history, you’re going to be imitated. Seriously, you can show a frame of any of his movies to people, and they’ll recognize it as Anderson. How many other filmmakers enjoy that kind of instant recognition? Miyazaki? Del Toro?

We shouldn’t be surprised. Anderson is easy to mimic. We know his geometrical pans, his overhead shots, his delight in taking inventories, his deadpan actors. If you were imitating an Anderson film, you might have a car chase tear through a small town with cops and bad guys shooting at each other and the main characters offering nary a comment on it. The filmmaker seems as aware of it as anyone, and yet his references to his own style seem curiously barren in Asteroid City, his latest entry. If he were intentionally parodying himself, you’d think the results would be funnier than this. 

The main story takes place in 1955 in Asteroid City, a fictitious desert town at the nexus of California, Arizona, and Nevada which is named after the asteroid that crashed there some 5,000 years before. The city’s population of 87 has temporarily swelled due to tourists seeking a view of an astronomical anomaly and a ceremony honoring five of the country’s best secondary-school science students. The festivities are crashed by a mute space alien (Jeff Goldblum in a mocap suit) who lands, takes the asteroid, poses for a photograph, and leaves in his — its? — flying saucer. The Army general in charge of the ceremonies (Jeffrey Wright) institutes a quarantine lockdown of the town, and everybody loses their minds or at least as close to that as they get in a Wes Anderson movie.

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Against that backdrop, war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) and Hollywood movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) are in Asteroid City because his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards) are among the students being celebrated. While Woodrow and Dinah fall madly in love, their parents both have a harder time connecting with anyone. Midge is shut off because of her history with abusive men, while Augie has not yet told his children that their mother died of an illness three weeks before. Indeed, he’s the one who snaps a perfect photo of the alien, and he feels nothing about that career-defining achievement.

A better Anderson film would have made Augie’s grief into something moving and taken advantage of Schwartzman graduating from the precocious kid of Rushmore to the sad Bill Murray role. Instead, Anderson piles on layers of metafiction with the framing device of a 1950s TV program with an onscreen narrator (Bryan Cranston) telling us that the above story is a stage play while he takes us behind the scenes. This entire gambit could have been lost, and even when Augie — or the actor portraying him — breaks into the framing device to ask what his character is about, Anderson can’t make it pay off. Also, the narrator appears briefly in Asteroid City, which confuses him as much as it does us. A host of actors work with Anderson for the first time (Tom Hanks, Steve Carell, Margot Robbie, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau), and their work only serves to persuade us that anybody can act for him as long as they stay as deadpan as possible. The subplot with Woodrow and Dinah teaming up with their fellow science nerds (Sophia Lillis, Ethan Josh Lee, and Aristou Meehan) to contact the alien on their own is a promising subplot that Anderson doesn’t follow up on.

The film still has some residual pleasures like the period Country-Western soundtrack that’s heavy on the Western. There’s also Maya Hawke as a schoolteacher who suppresses her increasing levels of panic as she doggedly sticks to her lesson plan while her second-grade students keep asking about the alien. You can feel Asteroid City reaching for the levels of pathos that underlaid the comedy of Anderson’s great works like Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel. It never quite gets there.

 

Asteroid City
Starring Jason Schwartzman and Scarlett Johansson. Written and directed by Wes Anderson. Rated R.

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