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Movie Review: Americana, told Wes Anderson-style, in star-filled ‘Asteroid City’

‘It’s about infinity and I don’t know what else’
This image released by Focus Features shows Steve Carell and Aristou Meehan in a scene from “Asteroid City.” (Focus Features via AP)

Wes Anderson gets back to the heart of things in “Asteroid City,” a film about grief, performance, storytelling, the cosmos and, well, everything.

Or, as one character, a playwright played by Edward Norton, says when asked what his work is about: “It’s about infinity and I don’t know what else.”

Meticulously designed and choreographed, with a beautiful, starry cast reading his and Roman Coppola’s droll words, “ Asteroid City ” is very, very Wes Anderson. Aren’t they all?

But “Asteroid City” also represents a return to form (or at least the form most people preferred) after his past two films, “Isle of Dogs” and “ The French Dispatch,” divided even his disciples. They worried, among other things, if style and form had finally usurped his storytelling. Regardless of whether you thought they were fun or painful or some dreadful in between, there was a palpable detachment to both films. Authentic emotion, when there at all, was strained.

In this way, “Asteroid City” seems like a response to all of that — an earnest and self-conscious case for making art, putting on the play, telling the story, acting the part even if you (and your audience) aren’t entirely sure what you’re saying.

It is wrapped in a labored and stylized conceit — a play within a play that’s being broadcast on a television network (the 1950s show “Playhouse 90,” worldlier people have noted, is the reference). And because it’s a play, the American midcentury Desert West can look as set designed as Anderson wants. He didn’t need a justification.

Nonetheless, it’s a sly deflection — as is the idea that no one is really sure what the point is, embodied by Jason Schwartzman playing an actor playing a recently widowed war photographer, Augie Steenbeck, who has traveled to the desert with his brainiac son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and 6-year-old triplets (truly standouts).

They come to Asteroid City, population 87, for the Junior Stargazer Convention, a government organized science competition in which genius kids show off inventions (jet packs, blasters, etc.) which the government then owns, as Jeffrey Wright’s Gen. Grif Gibson explains.

It is post-war in an anxious America where scientists are a key part of the nation’s defense strategy. In the distance, atomic bombs are being tested, too. Was something in the air while things like “Asteroid City,” “Oppenheimer” and even the documentary “A Compassionate Spy” were coming together?

Here, the mushroom clouds are not terribly threatening though. They are, for lack of a better word, adorable.

This Stargazer convention allows for an assemblage of a quirky ensemble with government types (Fisher Stevens), the brainiac kids (Grace Edwards, Sophia Lillis, Ethan Josh Lee, Aristou Meehan), their parents (Scarlett Johansson, Liev Schreiber, Hope Davis, Steve Park), the head scientist (Tilda Swinton’s Dr. Hickenlooper) a school group led by Maya Hawke and some musically inclined cowboys (among them, Rupert Friend) who, I think, just missed their bus. Locals include Hank the mechanic (Matt Dillon) and the motel manager (Steve Carrell). Tom Hanks is Stanley Zak, Augie’s father-in-law and a wealthy Palm Springs retiree who wears a gun in his plaid pants

In the world of the play being put on, there is the director (Adrien Brody), his soon-to-be ex-wife (Hong Chau), the Lee Strasberg-y acting teacher Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe), the actress whose scene was cut (Margot Robbie), the host of the television program (Bryan Cranston) and Jeff Goldblum as, well, you’ll see. As always, the names are a delightful treat. And all the actors make a meal out of their parts, no matter how small.

But if there are characters with something like an arc to spotlight, that would be Schwartzman and Johansson, whose understated 50s movie star Midge Campbell might be one of her very best performances. Augie and Midge have a brief romance, mostly emotional, in that very repressed Wes Anderson way.

Is this all a little confusing? Don’t dismay, I think that might be part of the point.

Maybe. Probably.

And, in any event, it works — “Asteroid City,” with its sprawling cast, beautiful hues, mumbled jokes, box-within-a-box setup, references that only the 80+ crowd may truly get and retro-cool soundtrack, actually makes you feel things even if it can’t quite make sense of itself.

“Just keep telling the story,” as Brody Schubert Green says to his actor looking for answers and motivations, is advice that could be interpreted as a shrug. Or maybe it’s actually everything — “Asteroid City” makes a pretty compelling case.

“Asteroid City,” a Focus Features release in limited release Friday and nationwide June 23, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for, “some suggestive material, smoking and brief graphic nudity.” Running time: 104 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.

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