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Wes Anderson's sci-fi 'Asteroid City' stays true to his look and feel

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Filmmaker Wes Anderson is known for movies that are eccentric, whimsical and dryly comic. Their subject matter may vary - family dysfunction in "The Royal Tenenbaums," 1930s decadence in "The Grand Budapest Hotel." But his comedies always have an unmistakable look and feel. Critic Bob Mondello says that remains true in Wes Anderson's first venture into science fiction, "Asteroid City."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: 1955, a stargazer convention in the middle of the desert. Fourteen-year-old brainiacs are here to compare notes...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

JAKE RYAN: (As Woodrow Steenbeck) What do those pulses indicate?

SOPHIA LILLIS: (As Shelly) What? Oh, the beeps and blips - we don't know.

MONDELLO: ...Show off inventions...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

LIEV SCHREIBER: (As J.J. Kellogg) What kind of mileage do you think that jetpack gets?

(As J.J. Kellogg) My son invented this death ray.

MONDELLO: ...And hear from General Grif Gibson.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

JEFFREY WRIGHT: (As Grif Gibson) Junior stargazers and space cadets, each year we celebrate asteroid day commemorating September 23, 3007 BC, when the Arid Plains Meteorite made Earth impact.

MONDELLO: Hence the crater and the town name - Asteroid City, population 87. It has a diner, a motel and a phone booth, where Augie Steenbeck is making a call to his father-in-law.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

TOM HANKS: (As Stanley Zak) You're not here.

JASON SCHWARTZMAN: (As Augie Steenbeck) We're not there. The car exploded.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CREAKING)

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Augie Steenbeck) Come get the girls. I have to stay here with Woodrow.

HANKS: (As Stanley Zak) I'm not their chauffeur. I'm their grandfather.

MONDELLO: But he comes. Also in town, as Augie discovers when he takes the kids to the diner, is a movie star.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Midge Campbell) You took a picture of me.

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Augie Steenbeck) Uh-huh.

JOHANSSON: (As Midge Campbell) Why?

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Augie Steenbeck) I'm a photographer.

JOHANSSON: (As Midge Campbell) You didn't ask permission.

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Augie Steenbeck) I never ask permission.

JOHANSSON: (As Midge Campbell) Why not?

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Augie Steenbeck) Because I work in trenches, battlefields and combat zones.

MONDELLO: Now, this is where I should probably mention for the uninitiated that nobody makes movies more artificial than Wes Anderson. They are art directed in pastel primary colors, this one with what looked like paper-mache cactuses and acted in a deadpan style that is either off-putting or hilarious...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

JOHANSSON: (As Midge Campbell) What are you going to do with that?

MONDELLO: ...Depending on how you like your deadpan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

JOHANSSON: (As Midge Campbell) That picture.

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Augie Steenbeck) If it's any good, I guess I'll try to sell it to a magazine, now that you mention it - Midge Campbell eating a waffle.

MONDELLO: Scarlett Johansson is playing Midge. Jason Schwartzman, a charter member of the Wes Anderson repertory company, is playing Augie. And also on hand are Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Jeffrey Wright and Steve Carell as the motel manager whose vending machines will, for a few coins, sell you cigarettes, soft drinks and real estate.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

STEVE CARELL: (As Motel Manager) You see that wonderful, crackly patch right out there between the dead cactuses and the dried up riverbed?

SCHREIBER: (As J.J. Kellogg) I think so.

CARELL: (As character) That's your parcel.

MONDELLO: And then there's the unexpected visitor who upends the convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

MAYA HAWKE: (As June Douglas) Some of our information about outer space may no longer be completely accurate. Anyway, there's still only nine planets in the solar system as far as we know. Billy?

BRAYDEN FRASURE: (As Billy) Except now there's an alien.

MONDELLO: As if all this were not artificial enough, Anderson's provided a framing device. What we're seeing is supposed to have been written as a stage play that's being filmed for a black-and-white TV show, narrated Rod Serling-style by Bryan Cranston - so a play within a teleplay within a movie, all to explore themes that don't sound as if they belong in a comedy that's artificial but that are common to a lot of Wes Anderson movies - themes like grief...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

RYAN: (As Woodrow Steenbeck) Are you saying our mother died three weeks ago?

SCHWARTZMAN: (As Augie Steenbeck) Let's say she's in heaven, which doesn't exist for me, of course, but you're Episcopalian.

MONDELLO: ...Loneliness...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

GRACE EDWARDS: (As Dinah Campbell) Sometimes I think I'd feel more at home outside the Earth's atmosphere.

RYAN: (As Woodrow Steenbeck) Oh, wow. Me too.

MONDELLO: ...Existential angst...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

RYAN: (As Woodrow Steenbeck) What's out there? - the meaning of life. Maybe there is one.

MONDELLO: ...And especially notions of performance, both in life and in art.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ASTEROID CITY")

HOPE DAVIS: (As Sandy Borden) You're very good in the one about the tramp in the brothel...

JOHANSSON: (As Midge Campbell) Thank you. Thank you.

DAVIS: (As Sandy Borden) ...Who gets amnesia and becomes a pediatrician. You were very authentic.

JOHANSSON: (As Midge Campbell) That's actually maybe my favorite character I've ever played.

DAVIS: (As Sandy Borden) I don't know why nobody else liked it.

JOHANSSON: (As Midge Campbell) Oh, yes. Me neither. Thank you. Some people liked it.

DAVIS: (As Sandy Borden) Oh, I'm sure. I did.

MONDELLO: Given the film's quirkiness, Wes Anderson may be bracing himself for conversations that echo the last part of that exchange. Count me among the some people who liked his "Asteroid City" a lot. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREIGHT TRAIN")

NANCY WHISKEY: (Singing) Freight train, freight train going so fast. Freight train, freight train... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.