‘Asteroid City’ movie review: Step into Wes Anderson’s latest hall of mirrors for an excursion into a beautiful mind  

This star-studded metatextual retro-futuristic trip into 1950s America is classic Wes Anderson, with all the attendant irresistible whimsical flourishes and detours

Published - August 26, 2023 05:51 pm IST

A still from director Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’

A still from director Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’ | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

There is a moment in Asteroid City when an actor tells his director that he does not understand the play and wonders if he is playing the character right. The director says it does not matter whether or not he understands the play, and to continue to play the character as he is doing. The director’s advice makes a whole lot of sense when approaching Wes Anderson’s latest offering.

Asteroid City
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Adrien Brody, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Stephen Park, Rupert Friend, Maya Hawke, Steve Carell, Matt Dillon, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margot Robbie, Tony Revolori, Jake Ryan, Jeff Goldblum
Running time: 105 minutes
Storyline: Five gifted children are invited to Asteroid City to be honoured for their inventions, but everything turns upside down when there is an alien visit

There is a brightly scrubbed nostalgia for a past that never was — a desert town in America in the 1950s with a cowboy band, five intelligent teenagers, a bluff general, a school bus full of children with their too-young and too-lovely teacher, a war photographer, a world-weary actress and a smarmy motel manager.

And then this is all meta as this is a play about the Junior Stargazer Convention of 1955 and a television special about the writing of the play. The television special is in black and white while the play is in widescreen colour. In the play, a war photographer Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) brings his children — son Woodrow and three daughters — to Asteroid City where Woodrow is to be honoured at the Junior Stargazer convention. When the car breaks down, Augie calls his father-in-law Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks) asking for help. Stanley does not like Augie, who is yet to tell his children about their mother’s passing three weeks ago.

Scarlett Johansson in a still from the film

Scarlett Johansson in a still from the film | Photo Credit: Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) has brought her daughter Dinah to the convention and there are three other brainy children to be honoured for their inventions. During the presentation of the scholarship, an alien (Jeff Glodblum, naturally) comes down from a spaceship... and takes away a piece of the asteroid that gave the town its name.

Simultaneously we see the writing of the play by talented and tortured playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), the director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) giving sage advice that he does not take, acting coach Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe), and the actress playing Augie’s dead wife, Margot Robbie, telling her lines to Augie (the actor playing Augie) during a smoke break across balconies. Her part was since cut.

There is also Tilda Swinton as the local scientist with a rare celestial event burnt into her eyes, Bryan Cranston as the host of the television special, Liev Schreiber as the parent of one of the teenage geniuses, Maya Hawke as the teacher who is trying to keep her literal-minded students engaged, Steve Carell as the motel manager whose vending machines also sells real estate, and Matt Dillon as the mechanic.

Asteroid City moves along smoothly on otherwordly performances, frames and music. This is a movie that can loved or hated with equal fierceness; I go with love as all we need is love, and those three adorable girls who play Augie’s daughters casting spells as they bury the Tupperware container with their mother’s ashes. Awwww.

Asteroid City is currently running in theatres

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