Wes Anderson may have set out not to make an unwatchable film -- his latest is quite watchable -- but to make an all but unreviewable one, because his style so overwhelms its substance. It is set in a tiny western desert town loosely based on Roswell, New Mexico, in the 1950's (not the 40's, when Roswell's alien crash is said to have happened). The town has drawn brainiac children and their parents from far and wide for an annual science festival and competition when it has its own encounter with an intrusive non-human intelligence.
The film is shot in unnatural but soothing pastel colors. The effect is like walking down the aisles at a Toys R Us before that chain went out of business. It's a world seemingly made out of plastic, but it's not an animated one; the people are real.
And what an assemblage of people! Perhaps not since "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in 1963 have so many prominent names been persuaded to share the screen. In alphabetical order -- Adrien Brody, Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Willem Dafoe, Hope Davis, Matt Dillon, Jeff Goldblum, Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, Margot Robbie, Tilda Swinton. Wes's powers of persuasion must be enormous; Scarlett is said to have agreed to take the role for a salary of about $16,000/month.
If the film is about anything, it seems to be not about then but about the post-pandemic now. The father of one of the boys and the mother of one of the girls, who is a movie star within the film, played by Scarlett, fall in love in a manner of speaking, and so do their children, but in both cases it's a certain pronounced and acknowledged emptiness that binds the couples together.
God forbid there be any affect. When the actress offers to rehearse a scene of full-frontal nudity for her opposite number, who is just getting to know her, the idea barely registers on his face. He mumbles something that turns out to be "yes." The movie then mocks itself by showing Scarlett in the altogether for just an instant, and in a mirror image, a frame within a frame within a frame.
Indeed, one critic has said that "Asteroid City" is about frames precisely -- our inability to escape the multiple frames in which we live. I think that it might better be said that it is about filters, technological, psychological and cultural, that insulate us from true feeling in our new world, where only fools dream of authenticity. We inhabit now a place of supreme irony, but also of supreme isolation and numbness. And this we find to be good fodder for meta, meta comedy. We stumble about Plato's Cave and see our surroundings through a glass but darkly; we smile nevertheless in smug sophistication.