I’m calling it, folks — if Wes Anderson hasn’t already crossed the line into self-parody, he’s blown past it with this one.

Asteroid City opens with a framing device, emphatically and repeatedly telling us that this is a work of pure fiction. More than that, “Asteroid City” is a stage play written by Conrad Earp with direction from Schubert Green (respectively played by Edward Norton and Adrien Brody), and the framing device is a making-of documentary about the play, with Bryan Cranston playing our unnamed host. (Who accidentally and inexplicably intrudes into a scene of the play, I might add.)

So not only did Wes Anderson write and direct a movie in his deadpan yet heightened, painstakingly detailed, aggressively artificial style; but he went and outright stated that this is supposed to be a stage play. Even though (and remember, I’m speaking from experience here) there’s no conceivable way a production of this scale could be done on any live stage. More importantly, while the “Asteroid City” plotline is shot in vivid color and the framing device is shot in black and white, there’s otherwise no stylistic difference between the two. Both layers of reality are written, delivered, and shot in the heightened, deadpan, aggressively artificial style of Wes Anderson. So the documentary layer doesn’t even establish a different baseline of reality for contrast, it’s all the same sensibilities and logic.

Thus the framing device only serves to draw attention to how egregiously fake the movie is. The film makes fun of itself on a meta level and the framing device serves no other purpose whatsoever. Until the climax.

In a surprising and frankly ingenious last-minute swerve, the framing device becomes a metaphor for heaven. It’s a way for the characters (by way of their counterpart onstage actors) to directly talk with God and their deceased loved ones, asking questions about the meaning of life and moving on from grief and other such themes sprinkled throughout the movie.

Speaking of which, what is the movie about? Well, it’s a bunch of uptight dimwit characters bumbling their way through umpteen different storylines going in every possible direction, all the characters are played by absurdly overqualified actors, and the visuals are all gobsmackingly gorgeous. It’s a Wes Anderson picture, what do you expect?

To try and sum up as best I can, the plot unfolds in the southwestern desert town of Asteroid City (population 87), circa 1955. The town’s primary features are a diner, a gas station, a hotel, an uncompleted highway off-ramp behind a permanent roadblock (no, this serves no purpose whatsoever, it’s just there for the quirkiness) and a space rock that remains under lock and key in the middle of the giant freaking crater it left on impact with our planet. The characters include (but are nowhere near limited to) the following.

  • Jason Schwartzman plays Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer whose wife passed away three weeks ago. His late wife and her father are respectively played by Margot Robbie and Tom Hanks.
  • Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) is a Hollywood actor, with an upcoming role that’s got her reflecting on the violent men in her past while Augie is wallowing in grief for his dead wife. So the two strike up a kinda-sorta-maybe romance arc.
  • Augie and Midge are in town for the Junior Stargazer awards, in recognition of the nation’s best and brightest young scientific prodigies. Augie’s son is Woodrow (Jake Ryan), Midge’s daughter is Dinah (Grace Edwards), and of course the two have a mutual crush. Their fellow child geniuses are played by Sophia Lillis, Aristou Meehan, and Ethan Josh Lee.
  • The other Junior Stargazer parents are played by Liev Schrieber, Hope Davis, and Stephen Park.
  • The Junior Stargazer awards are hosted by “five-star general” Griff Gibson (Jeffrey Wright), alongside an aide-de-camp played by Tony Revolori and a chief scientist played by Tilda Swinton.
  • In contrast to our gang of teenage prodigies, we’ve got a touring group of ordinary young students passing through, supervised by a teacher played by Maya Hawke. (Wait, did she get into a Wes Anderson picture before either of her parents? How the hell did that happen?!) She also flirts a lot with Rupert Friend’s character, a musician in a cowboy-themed band passing through.
  • Steve Carell plays the manager of the local hotel.

Elsewhere, we’ve got various bit parts and cameo appearances from the likes of Willem Dafoe, Bob Balaban, Hong Chau, Rita Wilson, Matt Dillon… and oh yeah, Jeff Goldblum shows up as an alien.

Yes, you read that correctly. Go back and read that last bit again, if you have to.

I’m loathe to spoil much, but the “plot” (such as it is) kicks into gear with the strange and brief appearance of an extraterrestrial. The alien comes and goes in only a couple of minutes, the meeting is entirely peaceful, and there’s barely any sign that the encounter happened at all. But it’s still enough to send the government into a panic, putting all of Asteroid City into total lockdown for at least a week.

A week. In lockdown. With these characters. Predictably, they all spend the next several days ruminating about what happened, what it means for their own hang-ups and neuroses, when they’ll be able to leave, and what their worlds might look like afterwards. Hilarity ensues.

In case the bullet-point list didn’t make it obvious, the film is wildly inconsistent with regard to which characters get how much screen time and which story arcs will have any degree of impact on the plot. Hell, the cowboy band could be cut entirely and all we’d lose is a bit of extraneous comic relief. And I don’t think Bob Balaban even gets a line!

In the final analysis, I’d say that Asteroid City adds up to an aimless and messy film about the aimless and messy nature of life. It’s not at all unusual for a story about aliens to question our place in the universe or the meaning of life — just imagine those themes explored with too many characters and filtered through the forced quirkiness of Wes Anderson, and you’ve got this movie. Trouble is — as with so many of Anderson’s works — the deeper themes are buried under so many layers of artifice and deadpan quirkiness that your mileage may vary as to whether examining the film’s insights will be worth the effort.

That being said, the visuals are absolutely gorgeous, the cast is impeccable, and the intelligent deadpan humor is legitimately funny. This is, put simply, a Wes Anderson movie. In fact, the framing device was specifically designed to draw attention to the fact that this is a Wes Anderson movie. This is Wes Anderson squared.

So yeah, if you’re a fan, you should already have seen this movie. But personally, I still think that Moonrise Kingdom is the high point.

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