Even some of Wes Anderson’s most die-hard fans were put off by his 2021 film The French Dispatch, with its three-story structure and stilted, self-conscious evocation of literary France. Anderson hasn’t changed his storytelling technique in the slightest for his new film Asteroid City, which has premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but his recent detractors will be relieved nonetheless: this is his most enrapturing feature since The Grand Budapest Hotel nearly a decade ago.
As in many of Anderson’s films, the plot comes with multiple framing devices. We first see Bryan Cranston in black and white as an Edward R Murrow-esque TV host who introduces us to an earnest playwright called Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), who is working on the story we are about to watch. Asteroid City, then, is a film within a play within a TV show, or something like that. It is, we are told early on, an “apocryphal fabrication” – and it even has an optional intermission.
As soon as the action begins in earnest, the director switches his palette to iridescent Kodak colour. The main setting is Asteroid City, a desert town in the American southwest known for its observatory and enormous meteor crater. The military uses the empty plains to test atomic weapons, while junior stargazers and space cadets flock here to look at the night-time sky. Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a pipe-smoking photographer, rolls into town in his station wagon with his children in tow. His wife has recently died and he has her ashes with him. Then the car conks out, meaning he is stuck here. The genial but dim-witted local mechanic (a strong cameo from Matt Dillon) can’t do anything to help. Augie asks his father-in-law Stanley (Tom Hanks), with whom he doesn’t get on, to drive over and rescue them.
Anderson has put together one of his huge, familiar ensemble casts. Much of the pleasure here comes from the perfectly calibrated and very deadpan performances from his actors, even those in the minor parts. Rupert Friend excels in a cameo as a singing cowboy with a nice line in folksy, homespun wisdom. Jeffrey Wright is very funny as the gruff military commander who locks down the town after an alien (Jeff Goldblum) puts in an appearance. (The spaceship scenes seem intended as a gentle parody of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) Steve Carrell is the manager of the motel where our heroes are staying, a place where new settlers can buy themselves parcels of land from vending machines. Tilda Swinton is a scientist in a white coat, desperate to crack the secrets of the universe.
While junior stargazers are peering through telescopes or having their first experiences of young love, Augie starts up a strange romance with Scarlett Johansson’s Midge, a suicidal Hollywood star staying in the cabin opposite to him. Johansson is brilliant, embuing her character with both sex appeal and pathos.
Many of the actors here are Anderson regulars. Newcomers, including a late-arriving Margot Robbie as a worldly stage actor and Maya Hawke as a prim school teacher, adapt brilliantly to the minimalist comedic style that the director favours. Some of the best scenes here involve fellow Anderson neophyte Tom Hanks and his on-screen grandchildren debating what precisely they should do with their mother’s ashes.
In its own offbeat way, Asteroid City is an Anderson patchwork of Cold War paranoia and American family values in all their often hypocritical glory. It is every bit as arch as his best work, while still managing to tug hard on the heartstrings.
Dir: Wes Anderson. Starring: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum. 12A.
‘Asteroid City’ is in cinemas from 23 June