Wes Anderson’s ASTEROID CITY presents us a dream within a dream as it ponders our place in the cosmos by setting its story in three separate realities that bump into each other the way subatomic particles swarm around an atomic nucleus. Is it synchronicity or chance or some other cosmic law of which humanity is ignorant? By the end, that question will have been addressed, but like so much else in the film, in ways that are charmingly enigmatic, and exhibit a peculiarly logical non-sequitur aspect.
We begin in black-and-white with a television host (Bryan Cranston) welcoming us to a read-through of the latest work by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton with a Tennessee Williams-adjacent accent). Like the Stage Manager in Thornton’s OUR TOWN, the host sets the time and place, which is 1955 in the desert between Parched Gulch and Arid Plains. The town is the eponymous Asteroid City, and a curated cross-section of humanity find themselves there on September 23rd to participate in the annual Asteroid Day/ awards ceremony for Space Cadets and Junior Stargazers. Chief among them is Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), a recent widower en route with his children to the home of his father-in-law (Tom Hanks), with a stop-off in Asteroid City for a semi-exploded car and for his oldest, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), to compete in the Asteroid Day tech competition. Augie is a photographer (usually war) for The French Dispatch (in a nod to Anderson’s last film), and among his luggage are the cremated remains of his late wife reposing in that latest technical innovation, Tupperware.
Also on hand are movie star Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), whose 15-year-old daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards) is also competing; Dr. Hickelooper (Tilda Swinton) from the local military research facility, a bluegrass band stranded when they missed their bus, a grammar-school field trip, and the proprietor of the only lodging this town of 87, a chipper soul (Steve Carrell) with a margarita vending machine and an unusual real estate business plan.
Over the next few days, romance will bloom, a military emergency will be declared, lifted, and re-declared, and a furtive close encounter will ensue that is, like the film itself, a perfection of absurdity and probability. Over the course of the film as a whole, our television host will annotate the action with behind-the-scenes information about the play’s production, the private lives of several participants, and boundaries will be crossed with insouciant élan.
As with all of Anderson’s oeuvres, this one uses a deliberate artificiality to add to the audience’s suspension of disbelief, a strategy that heightens the emotional resonance. This despite actor’s attitude of formal declamation that, counterintuitively, allows us to project our own emotional shadings onto them. It allows for moments of transcendent angst and epiphany in a pastel landscape too effulgent to be real, and so bright in its carefully composed and manifestly static scenes that shadows are barely able to manifest themselves, resolving instead into suspicions of darker pastels.
ASTEROID CITY deftly gambols between realities such that what is real and what is not becomes moot. The story (stories) is (are) all equally real, the characters, and characters playing the characters, attaining a truth at which conventional narrative can only hint in a futile attempt to achieve. It is a realm of semiotics and silliness where a gas station offers death rides, a high school kid invents a disintegrator, and processing difficult life changes results in a détente that is unexpectedly satisfying. Plus, in all these realities, a mushroom cloud in the distance is less important than strawberry milk, and Pluto is still a planet.