There’s a trend on social media at the moment for Wes Anderson pastiches. There are AI-assisted trailers for horror and fantasy films done in Anderson’s instantly-recognizable style, and on TikTok, creators are Wes Anderson-ing everything from their holidays to trips to the coffee shop. They all have the director’s trademarks – the sans-serif block capitals, the color-coordinated pastels, the symmetrical compositions, the polished dialogue delivered in deadpan fashion by a roster of faithful actors.
But what most of them prove is that Anderson isn’t so easy to imitate, after all. The likes of The French Dispatch and The Grand Budapest Hotel amount to a lot more than a handful of stylistic quirks. But I’m not sure that’s true of his latest tricksy comedy, Asteroid City. This elaborate, empty confection proves that, however enthusiastically other people can caricature him, no one can do so more enthusiastically than he can.
The film is set in a Southwestern American desert in 1955 – a bright orange desert, of course, surrounded by bright orange rock formations. There is a tiny town – Asteroid City – consisting of a motel, a garage, and rows of small white cabins. A meteorite landed there 5,000 years ago, and the resulting bright orange crater is the site of a government observatory. This town is now hosting a “Junior Stargazers and Space Cadets Convention”, to which scientifically brilliant high-school students are invited to show off their inventions: a rocket pack, a ray gun, and a device that projects images onto the moon.
The parents of these teenagers include a recently widowed war photographer, played by Jason Schwartzman, and a disillusioned movie star, played by Scarlett Johansson. Also present are a verbose military bigwig played by Jeffrey Wright, a swaggering grandad played by Tom Hanks, a motel owner played by Steve Carell, a twittery astronomer played by Tilda Swinton, a mechanic played by Matt Dillon, and plenty more besides. If you want to do some stargazing of your own, Asteroid City certainly has a galaxy of stars for you.
Beyond that, though… the setting is proudly synthetic and cartoonish (so cartoonish that there’s even a cameo by a roadrunner), with skies, walls and trousers which are all the same shade of pale blue. The oddball characters’ interactions are mannered and monotone. And the scenes are more like individual sketches than parts of an ongoing story. Meanwhile, such major events as an atom bomb test and a high-speed police chase are introduced and then ignored. Anderson’s devotees and imitators may be delighted by these caprices, but irritation may set in for everyone else. And that’s a mere taste of the quintessentially Anderson-ish kookiness in store.
Another of the film’s conceits is that it isn’t just a film. A black-and-white prologue, featuring Bryan Cranston as its frowning narrator, informs us that what we’re about to see is a Broadway play. But, actually, we’re not going to see the play, but a television show about the making of the play, which means that the main desert scenes are separated from the viewer by too many layers of artifice to count.
Just when you’re warming to the tentative romance between the photographer and the movie star, a card is slapped on screen informing you which scene of which act you are watching, or else the narrator wanders on to the set by accident, or the action shifts back to a black-and-white world where Edward Norton’s playwright is auditioning Schwartzman’s actor, and where Adrien Brody’s director is living in a theatre because he has separated from his wife, Hong Chau. Oh, and Margot Robbie, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe turn up, too, the joke being, I suppose, that Anderson can persuade these A-listers to appear, even when he gives them next to nothing to do. At no point does he allow us to settle into any narrative in particular.
Yes, Asteroid City is ingenious and amusing, and yes, it’s as meticulously designed as ever, but this perplexing pile of postmodernism seems intended to test the patience of the director’s fans – to see how far he can venture away from human emotion and into arch, self-congratulatory whimsy before they give up on him. For the first time in his career, he’s ventured too far for me.