As Wes Anderson hones the rhythms and compositions of his impeccably detailed scenes (which, despite all the TikToks doing Anderson impressions, amount to more than posing symmetrically and adjusting crooked curios), he’s synchronously grown more playful with their narrative structure. Grand Budapest had a dual-layer framing device at both ends, The French Dispatch swapped a flashback for a stage version of its events, and Asteroid City, the Andersonian apotheosis until his next machine unwinds, starts as a televised reenactment of the writing of a play called Asteroid City, which is presented in full in tandem with the program. Can’t have too many layers of hand-crafted quirk.

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The setting’s a tad bleaker this time—some tourist town in the desert where an asteroid hit once —but Anderson and production designer Adam Stockhausen (his primary design collaborator since Moonrise Kingdom) build it charming from the ground up. The hallmarks of an Anderson set are all accounted for: stagey, vintage décor (with a taste for symmetry and a glut of idiosyncrasy), tasteful palettes of muted pastels (the exteriors enjoy a wide, baby blue sky), and comically large signage labeling each little landmark, from the highway exit to nowhere to the postcard-friendly crater. The frame is generally less busy than The Dispatch at its densest—we’re in a desert, after all—but the clockwork orchestra of character affectations is shot with signature precision. It’s sharp, it’s funny, it’s paced with snappy strategy; brevity is the soul of its visual wit.

So it’s like most of Anderson’s work. The tone, too: wistful absurdity in a buttoned-up shirt. The play-within-a-movie follows a youth astronomy convention full of eager kids and existentially anxious adults, all of whom would benefit from something meaningful beyond the stars. That notion of something “out there”—some purpose, something greater, something affixed to our inner lives—runs through Asteroid City and up the rungs of its metanarrative, shaping into a veiled manifesto for why Anderson makes art (and what he’s trying to capture when he does it the way he does).

But does all that connect? Some have found Anderson emotionally impenetrable, and here he acknowledges his cosmetic emotional distance: the TV program about the writing of the play refers to dramatic, moving scenes that were cut entirely, like meta-apologia for refraining from big swings. The emotional (and literal) spaces of the team behind the play—who are Anderson and co. self-inserts as much as Anderson protagonists—speak to the drive behind these elisions. In one sequence, announced by its score, energy, and third-act real estate as key to deciphering the whole thing, the playwright and his cast have an acting revelation based on a method Anderson identifies with, and the scenes feel crucial and exciting but over in a flash, hastened by rapid dialogue and cuts. It’s a scattershot of dots a second watch could connect; at the rate things are going, there’s little time to sit with it. The text begs for repetition or retrospect.

Which is a very academic thing to say about a movie with a puppet roadrunner who goes “meep-meep,” but that’s the tension Asteroid City lives in. It’s telling that, amid the vocal and structural self-reflection, the film comes most alive in a quiet scene inside the world of the play, when the “out there” of it all is literalized. It’s a simple scene of peculiar craft—a silly one too—and it works in a vacuum like a perfect diorama of the metatext’s ideas. The later, more verbose scenes deepen these ideas, but I found them less persuasive as they sped through my senses. On first watch, the loops of discursive stories leave but a vague impression. 

It’s delightful enough to revisit, though; the cast is stacked and more than game, Anderson’s aesthetic flair is in finer form than ever, and there’s palpable substance to the script’s experiments. On repeat viewings, those disparate stars of subtext might form a constellation.

★★★   (3/5)