In Astroid City, director Wes Anderson returns to the 1950s to create a self-consciously expressed artificial environment in which he can ... well ... I'm not sure exactly what.
Astroid City overloads on the dry visual wit that has distinguished Anderson's style. Anderson's movies (The French Dispatch and The Grand Budapest Hotel) are so strenuously stylized that one can only assume that we're meant to revel in the cleverness.
In this case, Anderson creates a phony desert landscape in which he locates the town of the movie's title. The story and its characters feel like miniatures encased in high-quality plastic, Bakelite perhaps.
I guess the question arising from all this is whether Anderson's approach transcends playful amusement? The dialogue and some of the issues (the rise of atomic weapons) suggest he has more in mind than chuckles.
Whether you can make that leap with him seems to turn audiences into supporters or detractors or, just as likely, those who are simply confused. Watching Astroid City, I alternately found myself in all of those categories.
One of Andreson's best sight gags involves a highway constructed in the middle of Astroid City. The road ramps upward and then ends abruptly, suggesting that the town's early optimism ran out of gas. Make what you will of that. I laughed.
Anderson populates Astroid City with a large and notable cast.
Jason Schwartzman plays Augie Steinbeck, a war photographer who's traveling with his four kids and the ashes of his late wife, a once loved woman whose remains have been stored in a Tupperware bowl.
To add to the story, the little town plays host to a mini-convention of Junior Stargazers. A funny Jake Ryan portrays Augie's son Woodrow, a nerdy Stargazer with a serious scientific bent.
If all this weren't enough, Anderson adds another meta layer. We know from the start that everything that unfolds in Astroid City is part of a television play that's introduced in black-and-white sequences by a character called The Host (Bryan Cranston).
Later Adrien Brody will turn up as Schubert Green, the man who seems to be directing the play which was written by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton).
Of all the movie’s many actors, Brody alone seems entirely comfortable in this world. He retains a sense of fluidity that other actors can’t always achieve when visiting AndersonWorld.
As you probably can tell, Astroid City can be regarded as a scorecard movie. You'll need one to keep track of the many actors who pop up. Jeffrey Wright plays General Grif Gibson, a military man who addresses the Stargazers.
You'll also find appearances by Matt Dillon, Steve Carell, Hope Davis, and Liev Schreiber.
More notable is the work of Scarlett Johansson who plays movie star Midge Campbell and who -- during the course the play we're watching -- converses with Augie. Both characters speak from their motel rooms, observing each other through windows.
Midge pops back and forth from the play to black-and-white behind-the-scenes sequences that show us what's happening backstage at the production.
Other characters also appear in both realities.
The performances are molded into the movie's deadpan style that's enjoyable if you pick out highlights, notably a dance sequence led by Montana, a cowboy played by Robert Friend.
A scene in which an alien lands in Astroid City is as funny and beautifully executed as it is cheesy -- in the manner of third-rate 50s sci-fi.
And, oh yes, Tom Hanks.
Hanks pays the grandfather of the Steenbeck brood; he shows up for the burial of his daughter's ashes and connects the movie to the grief that drives Augie and his kids.
For the most part, the appearances of the movie's many actors lack the joy of recognition that sometimes can be derived from a large, recognizable cast. Here, they come and go without fanfare.
Astroid City looks like one of those towns that were constructed for atom bomb tests and, at various points, we see mushroom clouds in the background. The town is named for an astroid that long ago smashed into earth, leaving a portion of itself as a valued memento.
Anderson divides the movie into acts, which heightens the sense of remove that he creates; for me, at least, this is both Anderson’s strength and weakness. His characters can be more like objects than people and they operate in the coded way that fits the rest of the film.
At times, Astroid City has a piercing brilliance that I found captivating. Overall, though, the movie proves fitfully enjoyable, something we observe as if looking through a microscope meant to satirize and dissect cliched images of lonely Western landscapes. If they were paintings, they might be admired for their cartoon-like clarity.
My advice: Grab what you will from the passing tray of oddities, ignore what baffles you. Sometimes Astroid City feels like a collectors show of mid-Century bric-a-brac; best to take it booth by booth.