For his last two movies, Wes Anderson has considered what makes people tick. It is interaction which evolves the likes of The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom but reaction, whether it is to a person, place or event, makes the heart of Asteroid City beat. Quarantines, outer space and grieving families, Anderson directs a colourful spread of topics usually featured in tabloid newspapers. He adds heart and character with the usual flair and colour he does, a considered restraint featuring throughout this Jason Schwartzmann-led feature as he pushes away from any chance of becoming a pastiche of himself. No chance for that, and with the elusive plot whirring away, the stratospheric and out-of-this-world event looming over everyone, the characters within become acceptably, understandably, selfish.
All the space cadet bits and pieces feel pushed to the wayside by the Americana aesthetic, the 1950s era a comfortable suit for Anderson to try his style on. It is a natural pairing which sees the colourful and often sickly glow of his work find a place where it exceeds in feeling natural. Steve Carell, his always-understanding motel owner, a supporting delight as he caters to those extra bits and pieces left without much interaction elsewhere. Liev Schreiber and Hope Davis are two of many to be catered to in this way, but Asteroid City, considering its population of 87, soon feels like a booming town with plenty of kinetic energy and interesting production themes. Isolated as they are in this town of nowhere, those feelings of self-reflection and a search for meaning bubble to the surface.
Anderson knows those notions cannot be contained to just a story, so he flitters in and out with the build-up and fall-out of stage production, with obvious nods to The Twilight Zone-era of presenting to camera, which Bryan Cranston pursues nicely. It is Schwartzman and Scarlet Johansson, though, who provide the best of these details. The former in a career-best performance, the latter exuding the same confidence which has steered her through over a decade of big-screen domination. Expectations of the 1950s starlet, the grizzled war photographer flipped on his head as a quiet man with a wound in his heart and head, it all presents this path toward self-discovery, the science fair and eerie craters which surround the inevitably stacked cast are surplus to requirement. Tom Hanks is a solid stand-in for the Bill Murray-shaped hole, while Adrien Brody and Edward Norton are hard at work keeping the fictional reality behind the fictional fiction firing away.
There is a sense toward the third act Anderson has lost himself or his characters and hopes, by throwing everything he can at them, to find himself. Possibly his most romantic film in years, and not for the cast but for the supporting performances and what they are saying, Asteroid City is a firm and comfortable viewing for those who still enjoy the style Anderson brings. Plenty of sight gags and deeper meanings ruminating in the backdrop of a family man without his footing in the real world. Finding your footing is harder when it all feels like a dream, but Asteroid City shows the uniforms everyone wears, the creativity or brainiac nature they may have is nondescript and borderline unnecessary when trapped, side by side.