To say that he’s done it again – yet again – is going to mean something different to fans and non-fans. But I have to say the first category is the only place to be for what is simply a terrifically entertaining and lightly sophisticated new comedy from Wes Anderson, in his signature rectilinear, deadpan style, with primary-pastel colours and his all-star repertory ensemble cast. Regulars including Jason Schwartzman and Tilda Swinton are now joined by Scarlett Johansson and Tom Hanks, who have been welcomed into the droll Anderson fold. And the director emphatically proves that the YouTube pasticheurs are like Butlin’s Elvis impersonators: they’re not quite doing it.
Asteroid City’s eccentricity, its elegance, its gaiety, and its sheer profusion of detail within the tableau frame make it such a pleasure. So, too, does its dapper styling of classic American pop culture. With every new shot, your eyes dart around the screen, grabbing at all the painterly little jokes and embellishments, each getting a micro-laugh.
It is set sometime in the mid-1950s in a US desert town called Asteroid City, named so because 3,000 years ago this was the site of a meteorite landing (“asteroid” is not in fact quite accurate, as a meteorite is part of an asteroid). It is now the location for a US government observatory, but it is also where an annual convention takes place honouring the teen inventors of the best high-school science projects; these are of course hilariously scary and advanced, such as a fully functioning death ray. Amusingly, the town has a sign welcoming the nation’s “junior stargazers and space cadets”, playfully inviting you to assume that the phrase “space cadet” really did once exist in this non-abusive form. (It didn’t.)
Just as the kids and their parents assemble for the proceedings in the hot, dry desert with its fierce, blue sky and yellowish terrain, a staggering event happens – which is to say, more staggering than the periodic atom bomb tests whose mushroom clouds appear on the horizon. The president decrees that that no one is allowed in or out of town, a strict lockdown will be enforced until the danger is deemed to have passed and these people will just have to live together for a little. Schwartzman plays a widowed war photographer who gets his cranky, grieving father-in-law (Hanks) to come and help look after the kids; he falls for a nearby inventor-kid mom, a movie star played by Johansson. Jeffrey Wright plays the general in charge, Steve Carell is the motel owner, Matt Dillon the town’s mechanic, Rupert Friend is the local singing cowpoke. Hope Davis and Liev Schreiber are among the parents, and everyone is delivering the lines with absolute seriousness.
But there is also a framing device that actually acknowledges the artificiality and two-dimensionality of Anderson’s familiar mise-en-scène, and the invisible proscenium arch within which his dramas appear to be happening. What we are seeing is supposed to be a stage play, though miraculously brought into an approximation of the real world, written by an emotionally fragile dramatist (Edward Norton) who is in a relationship with one of the cast. You can imagine the distant mountains and sandy ground as a stage set, although they might not necessarily be CGI illusions; Asteroid City was shot on location in Spain.
As ever, there is little or no emotional content, despite the ostensible subject of grief. The movie rattles cleverly and exhilaratingly along, adroitly absorbing the implications of pathos and loneliness without allowing itself to slow down. It is tempting to consider this savant blankness as some kind of symptom, but I really don’t think so: it is the expression of style. And what style it is.
• Asteroid City screened at the Cannes film festival