Here are some of the things made fun of in "Asteroid City": the Actors Studio, the Stage Manager in "Our Town," '50s sci-fi films such as "The Day the Earth Stood Still," science fairs and playwright Clifford Odets. So, yes, it's a Wes Anderson movie.
Like Woody Allen before him (except, fortunately, not like Allen in his personal life), Anderson has carved out an increasingly limited territory and by now you probably know whether you're into it or not. His movies are deadpan, bemused, self-referential and art-directed to within an inch of their lives; "Asteroid City" leans on yellow/turquoise/brown/orange as a palette, with Scarlett Johansson's lips for a pop of red.
"Asteroid City" begins in black-and-white, in a theater, where we're introduced to the concept that will take over as the movie shifts into color and from theatrical to cinematic. Jason Schwartzman — who debuted in Anderson's "Rushmore" — plays a widower, driving his teenage son and three younger daughters to a desert, where his son will be honored at a Junior Stargazers convention.
Also in the deliberately fake-looking desert are: Two-dimensional cacti. Johansson, as a glamorous actor ("I prefer to play abused, tragic alcoholics") whose daughter also is a prize winner. Maya Hawke as a cheery teacher with rambunctious students. Tilda Swinton as a brisk scientist not unlike the social worker she played in Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" (asked if she ever wanted kids, she replies, "Sometimes I wonder if I wish I should have"). And, eventually, Tom Hanks, as Schwartzman's crusty father-in-law.
In a rare Anderson nod to the fact that the present day exists, there's a quarantine in "Asteroid City." It's set in 1955 but, like all of us, the characters get stuck together — in this case, because of a genuinely surprising event I won't give away. With all of these disparate types assembled, there's plenty of opportunity for unexpected romances (between Schwartzman and Johansson, but also possibly their kids), droll visual jokes and ingenious problem-solving from the junior scientists.
If "Asteroid City" feels warmer than some Anderson movies, it's because of new actors who've joined his de facto repertory company. Hanks dives into the spirit of Anderson's regulars, who speak quickly and with little inflection, but it's fun to see his innate, genial charm shake things up. Hanks is particularly adorable with his character's tiny-but-mighty granddaughters, each of whom could probably take him in a wrestling match.
An even bigger surprise is Margot Robbie, who shows up so late in "Asteroid City" that I had forgotten she was in it. Her character is tangential to the action but Robbie's impassioned acting in her lone scene is so against the grain of the movie and so perfectly judged that you hang on her every word, certain she'll help us figure out what this shaggy dog story is about.
That doesn't happen, by the way. With scenes that feature many views through windows, even through windows within stage sets within prosceniums, Anderson seems to be saying something about how art helps us reframe the world through new eyes. Like his characters, viewers are drawn into a setting with a bunch of people we wouldn't usually meet and, like them, we emerge intrigued and a little baffled by what we've learned about each other.
*** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for language and brief Johansson nudity.
Where: In theaters.