Friday, June 14, 2024

Shot in black and white on a black box theater set in a 1957 television studio, Wes Anderson regular Jason Schwartzman plays actor Jones Hall, who seduces playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) after landing the role of Augie Steenbeck in Earp’s latest play, the titular “Asteroid City.” This intimate backstory is one of several behind-the-scenes vignettes about the production of Earp’s final work, which is shot in color – a dreamy, Southwest-evoking palette of teal, orange and tan. A recent widower, single dad and former war photographer, Augie is one of many offbeat parents taking their gifted children to the 1955 Junior Stargazer convention. A brief extraterrestrial visit interrupts the proceedings, triggering a government-imposed quarantine with no travel and no communication with the outside world and sparking a widespread crisis about the meaning of life.

During lockdown, an attraction develops between Augie and Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a fellow Stargazer parent and renowned Golden Age star. As the play approaches the final act, the line between the framed black-and-white now and Earp’s play gets increasingly blurred until Schwartzman’s Hall breaks character in a desperate bid to understand the significance of Earp’s swan song. Along the way he bumps into another actor (Margot Robbie), who is working on a different project but was supposed to play Augie’s wife. It’s a strange, poignant moment, one of many scenes that has Anderson’s multilevel balancing act folding back in on itself.

The sci-fi dramedy covers all the Anderson bases: quirky style and monotone delivery detailing oddball stories. The narrative structures may be a bit disorienting, but, hey, it’s a Wes Anderson film, and in the end it all makes sense as an ostensible parable for the pandemic refracted through the lens of Cold War paranoia and an alien-landing site.

Asteroid City isn’t much of a city, but a podunk desert town famous for a 5,000-year-old meteor (not an asteroid, mind you) about the size of a small disco orb that serves as tourist attraction and economic engine. During the lockdown there’s not much doing, and folk try to cope by adhering to their daily work routine, connecting with others and trying to do the impossible: return to normal. For Asteroid City, that means there are often mushroom clouds from nuclear tests off in the horizon, but they are met with “new normal” indifference, the onscreen embodiment of how most ignore the average news cycle.

The film homes in on Augie and Midge, Augie taking and developing photographs while Midge prepares for her next role in their respective but adjacent motel bathrooms. They flirt through their bathroom windows, an image reminiscent of a Covid Zoom session: strangers exchanging intimate details from their separate square boxes. As he helps her run lines, she encourages Augie to “use your grief,” something Augie has been bottling up that’s simmering and waiting for release, a surprising scene atypical in an Anderson film.

Paralleling the creative process and crisis survival, Anderson shows how both situations require a consoling, collaborative community as participants wrestle with the notion of whether temporal connections will endure upon reentry or even matter. The playwright dies. After the quarantine lifts, Midge is no long onscreen, as if she was never there. In a meta flip, cut scenes are referenced. Oblivion has many faces, but irrepressible optimism resides in the lasting emotional effect. Feelings are real.