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ASTEROID CITY ★★★½
(M) 104 minutes
To get the most out of Wes Anderson’s films, it’s wise to do a little homework in advance. It was not always so. In Anderson’s early days, the inspired oddity of his characters and dialogue, with its deadpan tone and literary turn of phrase, were more than enough to keep you entranced.
But with his growing popularity, his films have grown more ornate, embellished with references to his many passions and preoccupations. These days, you need footnotes.
Scarlett Johansson plays a movie star whose daughter has been invited to accept an award in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City.
With Asteroid City, it helps if you’re aware Anderson grew up in Texas – a gifted child fervently wishing he were somewhere else, preferably within reach of New York City. The young Anderson was fixated on Broadway and off-Broadway theatre, the literary circles that surrounded The New Yorker and the kind of film stars and directors who frequented the Actors Studio.
And so to Asteroid City, which is peopled with an assortment of urban characters set down in the midst of a landscape that might have been plucked out of a John Ford western – although it does possess certain features to be found only in an Andersonian world.
Like many of his films, it contains visual reminders of a children’s storybook. While there are shadows, they look as if they have been painted on.
In this predominantly pastel realm, the people seem almost in danger of being swallowed up by the painted desert and its monuments looming up behind them.
And oh, yes. At one point, a mushroom cloud takes shape on the horizon, signalling the nuclear test going on somewhere in the distance.
It’s 1955, and we’re in a desert outpost comprising a luncheonette, a filling station run by a lone mechanic (Matt Dillon) and a motel sketchily maintained by Steve Carell. All are doing great business.
Wes Anderson on the set of Asteroid City.Credit: Focus Features
The town and the celestial observatory that stands alongside it are commemorating the meteorite that landed at this spot in the desert in 3007BC, and chosen to do it with a special awards ceremony. Five young inventors have been invited to receive the trophies they have won as Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets.
Among these precocious young fogeys is Woodrow (Jake Ryan), the teenage son of Augie Steenbeck (Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman), a war photographer, who is trying to bring himself to tell Woodrow and his little sisters that their mother is dead. This is the trauma at the film’s kernel, but Anderson has encased it in a multitude of distractions.
While Augie grieves, for example, he is drawn into a flirtation with Scarlett Johansson as a movie star whose daughter is another of the Junior Stargazers. And framing the whole story is a highly complicated conceit.
What we’re watching is actually a play within a play conceived by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), a New York playwright, whom we visit from time to time in black-and-white sequences about the play’s conception and staging.
I’m not sure what we can make of this hall of mirrors – except it allows Anderson to indulge his fascination with the cinema and theatre of the period, while inviting us to take part in a trivia game specialising in the category, “1950s memorabilia”. We see Schwartzman’s alter ego, a Broadway newcomer, audition for the role of Augie and we watch as Johansson goes through an array of costume, hair and make-up changes. In the desert with Augie, she’s a brunette with a hairstyle recalling Jane Russell in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. In a black-and-white scene, she’s a blonde dressed to resemble Kim Novak in Vertigo, a word that seems peculiarly apt at this stage of the game.
As always with Anderson, there are laughs to be had. Cast as Augie’s censorious father-in-law, Tom Hanks slips easily into the rhythms demanded by his dialogue.
Tilda Swinton, another Anderson favourite, is great value as Dr Hickenlooper, an astronomer who sees a stellar future for Woodrow and offers to take him on as her protege.
And there’s a bizarre interlude involving a visiting alien that ought not to work, but does because its tribute to Close Encounters of the Third Kind is carried off with such poker-faced panache.
As usual, I marvelled at the richly furnished nature of Anderson’s imagination, but I couldn’t help looking back on earlier, simpler times in his career when he was more interested in telling a story than scattering a grab bag of nostalgic memories and musings across the screen, fun as they are.
Asteroid City is released in cinemas on August 10.
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