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

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.

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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).

Schwartzman and Johansson are the movie’s standouts, bringing an element of poignant yearning and subsumed hurt to their characters. But each time their thread threatens to acquire substance, Anderson cuts away to some pointless vignette or some finicky bit of business that makes the entire over-crowded gallery of characters seem remote.

A big part of that is the over-complicated framing device, a black-and-white Playhouse 90-type television showcase introduced by an unnamed host (Bryan Cranston), who presents Asteroid City as a play by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), directed by Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) and cast with an ensemble plucked from the drama collective of Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe). The program is a behind-the-scenes tour of the creative process of mounting a play for the stage and the key characters involved all draw loose inspiration from midcentury artists and institutions, like the Actors Studio.

This means we also get mostly unrevealing glimpses of the performers playing roles in the desert play-within-the-TV program. And it allows production designer Adam Stockhausen to get creative with painted backdrops of cactus-dotted flats and rocky mesas and mountains probably made of Styrofoam. But this supposedly rollicking comedy with heart exposes the gulf between clever and fun.

Despite a deep-cut period selection of twangy country tunes and jaunty skiffle songs about train travel — an old-timey railroad runs through the town, along with intermittent cop cars in hot pursuit of random felons — the movie mostly just sits there, never really accumulating much life.

The point of the story — scripted by Anderson from an idea he developed with Roman Coppola — is that human connection, enlightenment and healing are possible even in a climate of deep-rooted paranoia and in the mushroom-cloud shadow of atomic testing. But the notes of poignancy struggle to break through.

Asteroid City made me long for the beautiful sadness afflicting the messed-up family in The Royal Tenenbaums, the adolescent growing pains of Rushmore, the nostalgia for the adventurous spirit of childhood in Moonrise Kingdom or the haunting tragicomedy of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie so layered it almost defies a single viewing. Anderson’s latest at times seems indistinguishable from the fan edits and AI-generated parodies of his work that have been sprouting all over TikTok and Twitter.

Among the most underused performers is Hong Chau, given a single scene as the wife walking out on Brody’s serial womanizer, not without regret; and Margot Robbie as the melancholy actress whose scene as Augie’s dead wife was cut from the play. She has a wistful exchange with Jones Hall, the actor playing Augie, from neighboring Broadway theater balconies. Beyond a presumable affection for the director’s work, it’s mystifying what drew Tom Hanks to the disposable role of Augie’s disapproving father-in-law, negotiating an ongoing place in his grandchildren’s lives while remaining open about his dislike for their father.

Few of the folks stuck for the duration in Asteroid City, the place, have much of consequence to do. That includes stargazer parents played by Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis and Stephen Park; Steve Carell as the motel manager hawking mini-plots of desert real estate; Maya Hawke as a dedicated schoolteacher overseeing a busload of kids; Rupert Friend as the troubadour cowboy gently romancing her; Matt Dillon as a local auto mechanic; and Jeffrey Wright as the decorated general emceeing the stargazer convention and later overseeing military lockdown when one of the young brainiacs runs a school newspaper scoop about the alien visitation.

That latter development involves Jeff Goldblum inhabiting the movement of a spindly stop-motion extraterrestrial perhaps meant to suggest the boundless possibilities of a universe too often regarded with fear. But the presence, while amusing, is not much more meaningful than Goldblum’s interplanetary visitor from Earth Girls Are Easy.

As always with Anderson, the craft elements are impeccable, including Stockhausen’s playfully fake sets, Milena Canonero’s geek-chic vintage costumes and Robert Yeoman’s cinematography, drenched in the dazzling colors of 35mm Kodak film and enlivened by lots of characteristic whip pans, artful symmetrical framing and split-screen interludes. It has to be said, also, that every actor commits 100 percent to the director’s vision, like oddball figurines in a miniature toy world.

The trouble is there’s just not enough here to fully engage the viewer beyond the trademark aesthetics — no emotional pull or lingering feeling and too few genuine laughs. For a movie so curiously weightless it seems awfully pleased with itself, its moments of magic evaporating almost instantaneously.

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