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“Asteroid City” Misses the Earth

For many years, folks have wondered what might happen if an asteroid ever struck the earth.

But with Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” there’s nothing to fear: The film doesn’t come anywhere near this planet.

In fact, it’s such a weird, incomprehensible movie that for only the second or third time in 50 years of reviewing, I’m flummoxed on how to approach it.

I guess I should start by asserting that I did not like it.

At all.

And I don’t think your typical viewer will care for it either — despite its baffling 75% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. (As a friend said on Facebook: “I don’t know what I just saw.”)

Anderson is the idiosyncratic, cult-fav writer-director behind such films as “Royal Tenebaums,” “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Isle of Dogs.” With his oddball characters, spare squarish framing, and deliberately artificial backdrops, he’s something of an acquired taste. I’m generally fond of his work and was really looking forward to this piece, with its lovely pastel colors, retro 1950s setting and astonishing cast: Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, Bryan Cranston, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber, Margot Robbie, Adrien Brody, Matt Dillon, Steve Carell, Fisher Stevens, Willem Dafoe, Bob Balaban, Rita Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, and Tom Hanks.

But with this new movie, Anderson’s idiosyncrasies have gotten the best of him.

The plot is such a mish-mosh of disparate, ill-fitting elements that it’s almost impossible to describe. Its titular setting is a remote desert town visited by a recent widower and his four children due to an automotive breakdown; as their grandfather comes to rescue them and Schwarzman falls for a glamorous film star who’s also in town, a convention of “brainiac” kids descends on the arid enclave to gaze at the heavens and receive some sort of science award from an army official.

There’s an alien spaceship, a vending machine that sells real estate, a meteor crater and its surviving fragment, a military quarantine, a running-gag police pursuit, a gang of singing cowboys, some sort of hovering government agents and a professor who’s working on a “Hypothesis of Celestial Flirtation.”

As if this weren’t enough, there’s an inexplicable, black-and-white, two-level framing story in which a Rod Serling stand-in narrates the writing, rehearsal and performance of a play called “Asteroid City,” which is the madcap story described above.

I could make no sense of this external frame, in particular why anyone would attempt a stage-play with vast desert vistas, a UFO, countless 1950s autos and a full-size freight train whose stipulated 600-something cars is three times the length of any rail consist ever hooked together.

But I can handle weirdness (after all, I do like David Lynch), and I found the film at least handsome to look at. For me, the death-knell was that I simply could not get emotionally connected to any of the characters (a frequent Anderson weakness); and worse, I have no idea what the film is trying to say. With little fear of a spoiler, here’s its apparent mantra, chanted ad nauseum at the climax: “If you don’t fall asleep, you can’t wake up.” While scarcely anyone would argue with this, I certainly don’t know what it’s supposed to mean.

And it doesn’t help that Anderson’s dialog keeps telegraphing the movie’s haphazard shapelessness:

“Everything’s connected, but nothing’s working.”

“I still don’t understand the play” — with its response: “It doesn’t matter; just keep telling the story.”

“I would question whether it even is a plot.” Rejoinder: “It isn’t.” (Admittedly, this refers to a burial site — but I’m sure Anderson is nodding to his storyline as well.)

And toward the end, our framework playwright, when asked what it’s about, gives this reply: “Mmm … infinity. And I don’t know what else.”

Neither do I.