Asteroid City

Directed by: Wes Anderson
Distributed by: Focus Features

Written by Michael Clawson

Wes Anderson’s latest has lofty themes: death, grief, desire, and the unfathomability of the cosmos, to name only a few. It also feels like an Andersonian episode of Looney Tunes, with the red-rock desert scenery of “Wile E. Coyote,” and even a Roadrunner-esque bird that occasionally scurries across a highway. The marvelousness of “Asteroid City” rests on Anderson’s singular ability to unify these impulses: beneath the quirk and fastidious surfaces lies a sincere meditation on what it means to be human.

I imagine it will come as a relief to those who found “The French Dispatch” too dry, for “Asteroid City” is not only visually dazzling, but also stirringly melancholic – and very meta. In an outer narrative, which is shot in black and white and a boxy aspect ratio, we’re privy to the backstage workings of the televised production of a play, entitled “Asteroid City.” The inner narrative, which boasts a ravishing color palette in widescreen, is the play itself. Set in a minuscule American Southwest town around 1955, the stage play “Asteroid City” depicts the sensational happenings at a junior star-gazing convention, which brings together a vibrant and eclectic horde of individuals near the site of a meteor’s crater.

Amid the crowd, the story homes in on widower Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), his brainy teenaged son Woodrow, and three younger daughters (they’re scene-stealers). Elsewhere, there’s a single actress (Scarlett Johansson, phenomenal) and her teenage daughter, who has eyes for Woodrow; other budding kid scientists and their parents; a gaggle of school children and their overwhelmed teacher (Maya Hawke); and plenty of other generously rendered characters. An unexpected visitor during the star-gazing convention’s award ceremony shakes the town and extends everyone’s stay (the town’s sole motel is operated by a hilarious Steve Carrell, the most welcome new member to the Anderson stable).

The laser-guided precision of the camera movement and the eye-popping pastels make for a bounty of arresting images. That could be said of most Anderson films, but “Asteroid City” strikes me as among his most visually pleasurable. I love the contrast between the blue of the sky and the burnt orange desert, the aquamarine on ‘50s cars and a bathtub. As predictable as the immaculate mise-en-scène is the sky-list of high-profile actors, many of whom turn in wonderfully deadpan performances. Which is all to say, “Asteroid City” is a very finely mounted work of both form and feeling.

“Asteroid City” Trailer

Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.

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