2023 | PG-13 | starring Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Jeffrey Wright, Tom Hanks, Jake Ryan, Maya Hawke, Rupert Friend, Liev Schreiber, Steve Carrell | directed by Wes Anderson | 1h 45m |

Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) takes his kids to a science camp in the small desert town of Asteroid City, known for the giant crater a meteorite impact left in the town, where he bonds with actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), his son Woodrow (Jake Ryan) faces social awkwardness and his daughters (Ella and Gracie Faries) act out grief as wiccans, until a strange discovery is made at the camp that brings the government down on the city and changes their view of science forever.

Since the day Rushmore injected itself into my heart and stayed there for life, I’ve been a fan and sometimes defender of Wes Anderson. Even when his filmography falters from storyteller to stylist. While outsiders claim Anderson’s movies are all the same, we Anderson loyalists know they aren’t. They look the same, but story, character and theme-wise, no two are alike. After Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaum’s Anderson spent years trying to get his groove back. He did with abandon with Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Isle of Dogs, which together make up his Rebellion and Authority trilogy, a series of films tied together by people trapped in and rebelling against an ever encroaching totalitarian state. For me, Asteroid City is his first dud in a long time, a film with Anderson’s trademark verbose, rapid fire 5-star dialog in a story that starts strong and completely loses it’s way under style, quirk and the Wes Anderson-ness of it all.

First, the good. Asteroid City is beautiful to watch. The colors, the framing and the set design. The conceit around the film is that we are watching a play which let’s Anderson scale down sets and props to charming stage-like cheapness. It looks like something Max Fischer would put on. Next, several of these movies have wrap-around stories, like the newspaper of The French Dispatch or the novel of Grand Budapest, but Asteroid City’s is the most clever and necessary use of this so far. I loved it. One layer up from the play we are seeing is the behind-the-scenes reality of the author (Anderson alum Edward Norton sporting his southern drawl) writing and putting together the play. Shot in black-and-white, this reality let’s the actors play duel role: their characters in Asteroid City and the actors playing them or the people who inspired them in the play. This results in a few format breaking moments when Schwartzman as the actor playing Augie literally walks through the 4th wall and professes to the director (Adrien Brody) that he doesn’t understand the play – as well as lining up a few choice Anderson cameos.

Foundationally, the characters are a bit richer than we normally get. Steenbeck’s grieving father character and his moments with Midge work tremendously, as does several of the conflicts between the other parents and camp counselors. Most of the cast is given a mouthful of precious Anderson dialog with a wild monologue from Jeffrey Wright as the town mayor, Maya Hawke as the teacher trying to keep the kids on task and Bryan Cranston as the film’s radio play narrator tying the wrap0around stories together. As the film goes on, however, it gets sidetracked by twists and quirk, grasping profundity in a situation that it isn’t ready to delve into and doesn’t have anything to say about. It turns superficial and ultimately commits one of the biggest crimes a storyteller can – it goes nowhere. Anderson the storyteller is overcome by Anderson the stylist and pretention takes over.

Pace is also an issue. Anderson is able to take his smallest productions and build them to a galloping climax. No such 3rd act change of pace occurs here. While chapter breaks aren’t unheard of in movies, Asteroid City is broken down into chapters and scenes, constantly giving us a visual sign-post for how the movie is progressing and a slow ticking clock to the end. This makes the movie’s 1h 45 minute length drag, which should have been a blessing in a year where movies are regularly clocking in north of 2 1/2 hours.

It’s too bad, because this is as close to a genre movie as Anderson has gotten. It breaks his usual reality and goes into outright fanciful science fiction where the projects the kids invent at the camp are actual laser guns, working jet packs and outer space projectors. A reveal at the halfway mark spins Asteroid City wildly off the beaten path and into full blown fantasy. It’s refreshing to see.

The movie is full of rich elements: the grieving father, the awkward scientist, the conflict between space exploration and spirituality, the struggling playwright and bewildered actor. None of it comes together. Anderson again seems to harken back to his Authoritarian trilogy and asking us to wake up to the world around us and doesn’t point us in a direction as storyteller. And for all it’s quirk, there is hardly a laugh in the film. In the opening cast credits it’s noted to feature “Jeff Goldblum as the alien” which is both true and a royal tease. Asteroid City gets truly weird, but not that weird.