Movie Review: Asteroid City

Even for audiences who aren’t always sold on the work of Wes Anderson, the funny and touching “Asteroid City” is worth a look.


No one should dismiss the surprisingly lovely “Asteroid City,” even those who have had their fill of Wes Anderson.

The twee auteur’s idiosyncratic style and dry-as-sand comedy isn’t for everyone. Even those of us who are generally accepting of his pastels and symmetrical compositions — that’s the camp I’m in — typically scoff at one or two of Anderson’s films. (I never got “The Life Aquatic.”) If you’ve ever liked his work, though, you’ll like “Asteroid City.”

Yes, even if you only like “The Royal Tenenbaums.” “Asteroid City” is Anderson’s best film since that early-aughts classic.

It achieves that distinction by burying lovely, slightly heartbreaking relationships just beneath the showy surface. There are dozens of characters in this 1950s science-fiction riff — it’s easily the most stacked cast of performers he’s ever had — but two generations of unassuming lovers make up the film’s core.

Augie (Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer and recent widower, has traveled cross-country with his genius teenager Woodrow (Jake Ryan) to attend the Junior Stargazer Convention, a gathering of space-focused students somewhere in the American southwest. Augie meets Midge (Scarlett Johansson), a troubled actress; Woodrow meets Dinah (Grace Edwards), a fellow precocious teen.

The students are presented with awards for a series of inventions — from a semi-functioning jetpack to an optical device that can project clear images onto the surface of the moon — when the gathering is interrupted by a slender, shy UFO. Parents and teens find themselves under government quarantine, reacting to their close encounter.

“Asteroid City” is a story-within-a-story; it’s presented that we’re seeing a theatrical production, with the action occasionally breaking to visit the play’s development. (Edward Norton plays the playwright, and Adrien Brody is the director.) That does give a justification for Anderson’s stagey presentation and proscenium angles; more importantly, though, it provides ample ground to study the artificial and the theatrical, asking very collegiate questions about how we approaching meaning in fiction.

That’s in there for those looking for it; on the surface, though, there is loss, love and a certain wistful beauty. And yes, it’s often very funny — the loaded cast includes standout work from Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Liev Schreiber, Steve Carrell and Maya Hawke, as well as an unforgettable one-scene appearance by Margot Robbie — and lovely to look at. All of Anderson’s films, however, are lovely and clever; with an unexpected depth of emotion, this is the one that lingers.

My Rating: 9/10

“Asteroid City” is now playing in theaters.

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