Review | ‘Asteroid City’: You’ll need a map to find your way out of this one

(2 stars)

To explain Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” an ambitious yet mystifyingly dysfunctional meta-movie, in terms of both form and content, it may be helpful to walk a prospective viewer backward, outward from the center of this most puzzling — and, most puzzlingly, ponderous — of puzzle boxes.

Set in 1955, against a robin’s-egg-blue sky that looks like it has been juiced up with an Instagram filter, and featuring the filmmaker’s signature fabulous yet fussy production design, the main action takes place in the titular mid-20th-century Western American town: a desolate desert outpost with not much more than a cluster of motel cabins and an auto body shop, so named because it is the site of an asteroid fall years earlier. The preserved, volleyball-size rock itself is hardly something to instill awe, but it somehow attracts an annual gathering of young space enthusiasts and their families for a few days of science-camp fun.

And yet this yellowing vintage postcard from the past is presented, in the context of the screenplay Anderson has devised from a story dreamed up with longtime collaborator Roman Coppola, not as a movie, although it clearly looks like one, but as a “play.” The action is framed within the context of a black-and-white television show that is being narrated by a Rod Serling-like host, played by Bryan Cranston. At one point, as if to remind you that you are watching a piece of staged artifice — as if that were necessary in any Wes Anderson movie — Cranston’s character shows up on the set of the “Asteroid City” drama, in color, having accidentally wandered in from the wings of the TV show.

To makes matters even more meta, that TV show — which plays more like a play than the teleplay it purports to be staging — centers on the act of creation itself, as we watch a writer, Ed Norton’s Conrad Earp, perhaps a stand-in for Anderson himself, compose the action of “Asteroid City” on what looks like a stage set. When one character attending the Asteroid City gathering, Scarlett Johansson’s movie star Midge Campbell, asks another, Jason Schwartzman’s war photographer Augie Steenbeck, why he has just burned his hand on a griddle he was using to cook a grilled cheese sandwich, he replies that it’s in the script.

Speaking of script, the characters in this latest outing by Anderson, ever the aficionado of kooky names, are especially distracting here — Dr. Hickenlooper, Schubert Green, Lucretia Shaver, Linus Mao, Walter Geronimo — as if they had been culled from the Toontown phone book.

The main story concerns the relationship — if that’s even the right word, in a tale in which everyone seems to be merely going through the motions — between Augie and Midge, who are chaperoning their respective kids (Jake Ryan and Grace Edwards) at the space camp. That’s set against the backdrop of a quarantine that the government has imposed on Asteroid City after an alien spaceship arrives and its pilot — looking like E.T., courtesy of stop-motion animator Henry Selick — steals the asteroid. A subplot involves the disposal of the cremains of Augie’s late wife, which he is carrying around in a Tupperware container. When Augie’s father-in-law (Tom Hanks) shows up to help wrangle Augie’s three young daughters, Andromeda, Pandora and Cassiopeia, played by triplets Ella, Gracie and Willan Faris, their grandfather helps them bury their mother’s ashes temporarily — pointing out that they may not have the legal rights to use the space encampment as a burial plot. “I would question whether it even is a plot,” says Augie, in a line that sounds suspiciously like Anderson acknowledging his own film’s flaws.

“Asteroid City” does have its moments, but they are few: Jeff Goldblum in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as the human actor portraying the alien (who opines that, in his interpretation, the alien is actually a metaphor) and several cast members of “Asteroid City” spontaneously breaking into song with “Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven),” a delightfully daffy ditty written by Anderson with Jarvis Cocker and performed by a band that includes Brazilian musician and “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” veteran Seu Jorge. It’s the only spontaneous, joy-inducing thing about “Asteroid City.”

Maybe the whole endeavor is some kind of self-portrait of an artist who doesn’t know what he wants to say anymore, or how to even say, “I don’t know how to say what I want to say anymore.” Toward the end of the film, during an acting exercise being conducted by an acting teacher named Saltzburg Keitel (Willem Dafoe), the chant, “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep” is repeated, over and over, as if it meant something.

Some of the dialogue does resonate, I’ll admit. When Matt Dillon’s auto mechanic turns to Augie to tell him that he still can’t get Augie’s car to start, he puts it in a way that once more sounds like Anderson critiquing his own elaborate but inert material: “Everything’s connected, but nothing’s working.”

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains brief graphic nudity, smoking and some suggestive material. 104 minutes.

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