“All my pictures come out,” asserts Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) in earnest deadpan, in Wes Anderson’s latest film, Asteroid City. Augie is a war photographer; he works “in trenches, battlefields, and combat zones,” and never asks permission. Anderson is known for creating worlds of elaborate detail and style, sometimes reductively perceived as whimsical pastel confections. But he is primarily a defender of worlds — those that exist within us, both nascent and fully formed, and which we need to trust.

Augie is the father of the precocious “brainiac” Woodrow (Jake Ryan) and indomitable triplets (Ella, Gracie, and Willan Faris). Their mother has just passed away and he has not yet found the words to tell them. The family arrives in the imaginary, eponymous desert location for a “junior stargazer” event. It is 1955. There are mushroom clouds in the distance. The family, together with a rich Andersonian constellation of characters (including Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks, Jeffrey Wright, Tilda Swinton, Steve Carrell), become stranded and quarantined when the event is interrupted by a visitor from outer space and the government shuts the whole place down until they figure out what the hell is going on.

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There are layers upon layers and so much distance to be transcended. ‘Asteroid City,’ you see, is actually a play, which, in turn, is presented for television by a host (Brian Cranston, with ample 50s gravitas). It is a staged presentation, static and contained in its technicolor. And, even within that twice-removed world of ‘Asteroid City,’ the characters — children, adults, representatives of the state — all inhabit worlds shut off from each other, struggling to connect. It takes an absurd intergalactic transgression as a catalyst for the main characters to bridge all that distance, to find themselves, each other, and us, the audience.

The picture does come out, in the end, as its creator knew it would. When it does, in a brief balcony scene, all that distancing and alienation achieve more emotional impact than any realist sentimentalism ever could.  

Asteroid City is playing at The Lexington Venue through July 6. Click here for show times.

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