‘Asteroid City’ Review: Whimsical, Pointless Cinematic Jabberwocky

The pastel palette and stylistic patina of the latest from Wes Anderson is admirable. But the episodic, smart-alecky narrative is not.

Jake Ryan , Jason Schwartzman and Tom Hanks (from left) in ‘Asteroid City.’ Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Asteroid City is the 11th film by Wes Anderson, the preposterously overrated writer-director who churns out the kind of whimsical cinematic jabberwocky that appeals to millennial movie audiences that applaud anything they don’t understand. They call him visionary, which gives new meaning to the old word pretentious. Still, I go to each new Wes Anderson concoction determined to give it a fair shake, and I always end up in more agony than it’s worth. This has been true of his entire filmography with the exception of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Admittedly, my memory is not what it used to be, but with no fear of being labeled old and out of touch with the times, I can honestly say, now that I have survived it, that I cannot remember any movie by this quirky, puzzlingly over-praised director that I have hated more than Asteroid City.

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ASTEROID CITY (1/4 stars)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: 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 mins.

Like all Wes Anderson movies, it is enigmatic, artificial, infuriatingly self-indulgent and irrevocably pointless. It also pretends to approximate a plot about an imaginary town called Asteroid City in the middle of the American desert where they test atomic bombs.  The year is 1955, the town boasts a famous monument where a meteor once fell, and a diner that sells strawberry milk. It is also the setting of a TV show called Asteroid City, styled in the tradition of an old Twilight Zone episode, that is being dramatized as a feature-length movie called—wait for it—Asteroid City! The town is also the location for a convention celebrating junior stargazers and space cadets, the highlight of which is the intrusion of an alien from another planet, viewed by the delegates to the town who watch the landing with their heads in cardboard soup boxes. The TV show is in stark, flat black and white, the movie is in Technicolor tints of orange and blue.  

 Neither the TV show nor the movie within the TV show make any sense, but there is a sort of plot which grounds the silliness in a cartoon eccentricity, which is all Anderson fans crave. Because they always guarantee a head-scratching share of PR poop, his films attract big names, many of whom sign on without reading the script, resulting in an all-star cast playing freaks and geeks with fanciful names and a glaring absence of anything that might be mistaken  for character definition. A war photographer named Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) is in grief over his wife’s sudden death and the challenge of being left alone to raise four kids as a single parent. His son Woodrow convinces him to take the family to Asteroid City to attend the convention for teenage scientists. Festivities unravel like colorful Life Saver candies, while a villainous government official (Jeffrey Wright) tries to steal the kids’ inventions, a movie star (Scarlett Johansson) covers her eyes in makeup to hide bruises inflicted by a fake suicide attempt, and the kids’ ancient, white-haired grandfather (an exaggerated, insufferably miscast Tom Hanks) tries to rescue them, dragging along the ashes of their dead mother in a Tupperware container.

Grace Edwards, Scarlett Johansson, and Damien Bonnaro (from left) in ‘Asteroid City.’ Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

Meandering in and out of three disorganized acts and an epilogue is an unnecessary circus of familiar faces in cameos that amount to little more than walk-ons, including Bryan Cranston as an imitation Rod Serling, Tilda Swinton as a scientist named Dr. Hickenlooper, and Edward Norton as the playwright Conrad Earp (rhymes with “urp”). Look fast and you’ll catch a glimpse of Adrien Brody, Jeff Goldblum, Margot Robbie, Liev Schrieber, Steve Carell, and Hong Chau. They should all have stayed in bed.

The cast, left to their own devices, improvises without charm. In one scene, an actor complains he does not understand the play. “It doesn’t matter,” snaps the director, “just keep telling the story.” On another occasion, the actors decide they’re in the wrong scene and exit the screen looking for craft, coherence, and logic elsewhere. I admired the pastel palette of sets like pink Tinker Toys that form the stylistic patina of the movie, but the narrative was too episodic and smart-alecky to keep me awake. To quote legendary producer and malaprop king Samuel Goldwyn: “Include me out.”

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Asteroid City’ Review: Whimsical, Pointless Cinematic Jabberwocky