Scarlett Johansson as Midge Campbell in “Asteroid City” (Focus Features)

“Am I doing it right?” 

This is the question Jones Hall (Jason Schwartzman), the actor playing war photographer Augie Steenbeck (also Jason Schwartzman) asks his director Schubert Green (Adrien Brody) during a quick break backstage of a performance of “Asteroid City,” the play at the center of Wes Anderson’s new film of the same name. 

Well, actually it’s a televised retelling of the making of the play, written by the fictional American playwright Conrad Earp (Edward Norton). Throughout the film, the host of the television show (Bryan Cranston) takes us through an imagined version of how the writing and performing process played out, interspersed with a cinematically rendered version of the play itself. The behind the scenes story takes place onstage in stark, shadowy black and white, while the play unfolds in brilliant color, a fanciful version of 1950s, pulpy science fiction. Both parts of the film are delivered with unbridled Anderson style; intricate set design, precise blocking and symmetry, and cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s discerning eye behind the camera. 

“Asteroid City” has Anderson operating at the peak of his stylistic power – and with countless soulless imitations of his work making the rounds on the internet, we’d do well to be reminded that labeling Anderson as prioritizing style over substance misses the point. Rather, for an Anderson film, the style is the substance. And in “Asteroid City,” perhaps more so than usual, he uses that style to dig into ideas about creation, about the unknown, and about the undeniable fact that we’re all most likely doomed anyway – yet we continue to ask ourselves if we’re doing any of this right. 

The “Asteroid City” play unfolds as such: a number of different groups descend upon a small desert town for a youth astronomy convention. Our main characters include Augie (Schwartzman) – whose wife has just passed and who breaks the news to his four children, including the shy, intelligent Woodrow (Jake Ryan), at the film’s start –  and actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), who attends the convention with her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards). About halfway through their intended stay, the guests of Asteroid City experience an astronomical event that could change their lives forever. 

A number of household names – Tom Hanks, Tilda Swinton, Steve Carell – and rising stars – Hong Chau, Maya Hawke, Sophia Lillis – make up the rest of the film’s lengthy cast list. And every single one of them (even the ones who show up for just a frame or two) has come to play. If you asked 10 different people, they’d probably give you 10 different answers for who’s the one to watch. For this critic, Hanks steals every scene as Augie’s father-in-law, sliding into the role of charming cad with a heart of gold with ease. As a warbling cowboy named Montana, Rupert Friend oozes with artifice and charm. And as the actress who would have played Augie’s wife had her scenes not been cut for time, Margot Robbie delivers the type of emotional gut punch Anderson excels at; off-hand, quietly staggering, and over before you really have a chance to reckon with what’s been said – or not been said, as the case may be. 

But despite the star power of the supporting cast, if any actors run away with the movie it’s Schwartzman and Johansson. There’s an energy between the actress and widowed war photographer that characterizes Anderson at his best. These two don’t necessarily seem like they’d have much in common, but they do. Neither are really bad parents, but they’re not great parents – there’s love for their children, but maybe a bit of resentment too, coupled with an anxiety that they’re doing it all wrong, weighed down by a sense of regret. The deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery from the actors doesn’t void the film of these emotions, but rather pack them tightly together behind a wall of repressed feeling, chomping at the bit to get out but never escaping. 

While watching  “Asteroid City,” I kept coming back to the theme of uncertainty. In a scene from the play that’s much discussed before we actually see it unfold, Augie purposefully burns his hand on a griddle during an emotional moment with Midge. When Jones discusses this character choice throughout the film, he admits he doesn’t really understand why Augie would do such a thing. In fact, at multiple points throughout the film, Jones laments that he doesn’t really understand the play at all. He comes up with ideas that could explain Augie’s actions, but at the end of the day we’re never really sure why Augie burns himself.

But why does anyone do anything? When the moment finally happens, despite Jones’ reservations about the choice, that sense of uneasiness gives the moment weight. All of Jones’ fretting about character, all of the work that goes into putting on a performance, can’t account for the spontaneity or unpredictability of human beings. In “Asteroid City,” the work that goes into meticulous, deliberate creation sits on a well of uncertainty. There’s whimsy in the tactile Asteroid City set, production designer Adam Stockhausen helping to create a world that looks straight out of a “Looney Tunes” cartoon, and there’s cleverness and humor in the metatextual setup of the film. These sets and these layers of story are constructed with care, and the sense of loss, of gain, of doom, and of hope that runs through the film is rendered with precision. 

And yet, no amount of precision can change the fact that we really don’t know anything – about parenthood, about art, about the world. But even if we don’t fully understand the play, perhaps that uncertainty can work to our advantage. And we’ll always be constantly asking ourselves if we’re getting it right. 

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.