Possibly the best thing to come out of lockdown – including that sourdough starter we finally mastered – Wes Anderson’s ’50s quarantine tale plays like the American auteur’s whimsical, surrealist answer to The Twilight Zone relocated to the dusty desert of the old West. Happily, for a filmmaker whose signature style can sometimes feel archly distancing, feeling as well as fancy courses through Asteroid City. It’s his most bittersweet film about family since The Royal Tenenbaums and hands-down his best since The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The setting is the fictional desert town of Asteroid City – although in a meta twist, it’s actually the setting of a TV play that’s unfolding in film form, written by Ed Norton’s legendary playwright, Conrad Earp, and narrated with an enjoyably raised eyebrow by Bryan Cranston. It sits halfway between Parched Gulch and Arid Plains deep in John Ford country, but it’s a place that could only emerge from Anderson’s ludicrously fertile imagination. Monument Valley’s rock formations and perfect, emoji-like cacti adorn the painterly matte backdrop as A-bomb tests detonate serenely in the distance in cotton-wool mushroom clouds. Welcome to ‘Once Upon a Time in the Wes’.
Here, among the symmetrical cabins, martini vending machines, toy-set gas and train stations and one giant asteroid crater, his rich assembly of characters gather under the baking Arizona sun to flirt, grieve, bicker and ultimately wait endlessly when a Junior Stargazer convention is interrupted by a sudden US government lockdown.
The cast list, of course, stretches to Tombstone and back. Jason Schwartzman is the story’s melancholy fulcrum as recently widowed war photographer Augie Steenbeck, showing new shades as a man unable to come to terms with his loss, let alone break the news to his children. ‘Are you saying our mother died three weeks ago?’ asks his puzzled son, a funny-sad line in an Anderson screenplay full of them.
Sharing top billing is Scarlett Johansson, who brings tragic starlet energy as silver screen Midge Campbell, with a young daughter and a world of heartache in tow. Maya Hawke and Rupert Friend sparks as a science teacher and cowboy whose romance blossoms amid astronomical epiphanies and sudden musical numbers, while Wes first-timer Tom Hanks channels Royal Tenenbaum as Augie’s perma-unimpressed father-in-law. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Jeff Goldblum steals the movie in three seconds flat.
A blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Jeff Goldblum steals the movie in three seconds flat
Would it be a stretch to detect something very personal to Anderson in all this – the self-scrutiny of a dad with a young child and an all-consuming job, pondering his responsibilities? In Asteroid City’s world, kids are the emotional ballast for the grown-ups, not the other way around. There’s tenderness, but there’s also a tang of self-reproach that most parents can probably relate to.
Anderson’s signature style always monopolises the attention – and all the usual split screens, gliding pans, pinpoint compositions and ornate homemade design are firmly in evidence here – but he’s a fine conductor of actors, too, and Asteroid City’s contrasting performers harmonise beautifully to hit some new notes for the filmmaker. (It probably helped that the cast were quarantined off-set, as well as on it.)
The overall effect is one of wonderment, eccentricity and heartache that will connect deeply with anyone who recently spent an extended period stuck in close proximity with other human beings. Maybe lockdown wasn’t all bad, after all?
Asteroid City premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. In US theaters Jun 16 and UK cinemas Jun 23.