Asteroid City

Asteroid City ★★★★½

Like any movie by Wes Anderson, “Asteroid City” is the epitome of a Wes Anderson movie. A film about a television program about a play within a play “about infinity and I don’t know what else” (as one character describes it), this delightfully profound desert charmer — by far the director’s best effort since “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and in some respects the most poignant thing he’s ever made — boasts all of his usual hallmarks and then some. A multi-tiered framing device, diorama-esque shot design, and Tilda Swinton affectlessly saying things like “I never had children, but sometimes I wonder if I wish I should have” are just some of the many signature flourishes that you might recognize from Anderson’s previous work and/or the endless parade of A.I.-generated TikToks that imitate his style.

As expected, the world of “Asteroid City” is meticulously arranged with clockwork precision, and — as expected — that world is then populated with memorable characters who try to assert the same degree of control over their own lives. Characters like Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a quietly grieving war photographer waiting for the perfect moment to tell his four young kids that their mom just died, as if there were a correct way to drop that kind of bomb on someone. “The time is never right,” he laments to the father-in-law who never liked him (a wonderfully sour Tom Hanks as Stanley Zak, a pistol always jammed down the front of his shorts). “The time is always wrong,” Stanley replies.

The good news for Augie is that his teenage son Woodrow (“Eighth Grade” standout Jake Ryan) is probably smart enough to figure it out on his own; after all, the science prodigy is one of four Space Cadets who’s been invited to the 1955 Junior Stargazer Convention in the tiny Southwestern outpost of Asteroid City, where they’ll get to show off their latest inventions to a government delegation that includes five-star general Grif Gribson (Jeffrey Wright) and famed astronomer Dr. Hickenlooper (Swinton).

Perhaps the most notable of the many other figures in town for the weekend is famous movie star Midge Campbell (a Scarlett Johansson, in full control of her own star power), who looks like Liz Taylor, takes after Marilyn Monroe, and materializes in the window opposite Augie’s motel room with the cosmic alignment of a solar eclipse. She’s always rehearsing for something, and never misses her cue. Her daughter Dinah, also being fêted in Asteroid City, will inspire a similar awe from Woodrow; par for the course in a film where love and loss orbit around each other in an endless chase, bound together by the gravity shared between them.

So far, so typical, even if Asteroid City itself is as vibrant and elaborate a location as Anderson has ever conceived. Home to exactly 87 people, this one-pump town is split along either side of a long desert highway and criss-crossed by a set of train tracks the government uses to transport everything from pecans to nuclear warheads. There’s a luncheonette with 12 stools, a motor-court with 10 cabins, and a vending machine where you can buy tiny plots of real estate as if they were candy bars. There’s an unfinished off-ramp that strands cars about 15 feet in the air, and — in the distance — a massive crater formed by a meteorite that’s been waiting at the bottom of it for who knows how many years.

Soaking up the “clean light” of the desert sun, Robert Yeoman’s camera reveals most of these sights to us in the span of a single 360-degree swivel, a flex that underlines Anderson’s absolute command over the film’s Chinchón set where his characters will soon be trapped against their will, thus forcing them to surrender the delusion of control that has defined so many of Anderson’s characters over the course of his career. It’s maybe the most radical thing that has ever happened in one of his movies — the sort of transformative moment that A.I. could never dream up no matter how much data it ingested — and it spins “Asteroid City” in a cosmic new direction. What until then was just another immaculate Wes Anderson film suddenly becomes one of a kind.

~this review continues on IndieWire~

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