Here in 2023, we are all uncomfortably familiar with the notion of being trapped in quarantine. So it is entirely to Wes Anderson’s credit that his new feature Asteroid City looks back to the social constraints of post-’50s America and locks its cast in characters within characters – in a play within a documentary – then captures the central players in a fantastical desert quarantine and we still want to learn more.

Bryan Cranston is our tour guide through this convoluted journey as he brings the audience into a television show about Asteroid City, troubled playwright Conrad Earp’s (Edward Norton) latest production. Asteroid City explores the extraordinary goings-on in the quiet desert town of Asteroid City – previously famed for a tiny asteroid, a HUGE crater, a road to nowhere and an annual Junior Stargazers’ Convention – and blooms the re-enactment from the constraints of Academy ratio into rich, dazzling widescreen colour.

Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) gets to the convention early to allow himself time to break some unfortunate news to his children and make his escape. Woodrow (Jake Ryan) his ‘brainiac’ son has braced himself for a lifestyle change but, pragmatically, has his mind on the odds of winning a gong at the prizegiving too. And his three little sisters are preoccupied with the gothic arts. Car trouble ensures that Augie will soon grow very familiar with Asteroid City and his fellow guests at the town’s sole motel.

Two men on phone in split screen locations

They include actress Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson) and her daughter Dinah (Grace Edwards), another convention honoree; teacher June (Maya Hawke) and her excitable young class; singing cowboy Montana (Rupert Friend) and his campfire-loving cronies; and a host of other famous faces striking self-consciously Andersonian poses to give us time to excitedly whisper, “I didn’t know they were in this!” to our seatmates.

General Grif Gibson (Jeffrey Wright) and lead astronomer Dr Hickenlooper (Tilda Swinton) begin the weekend as the genial hosts of festivities then later do their best to hold the Asteroid City inmates together when things take a turn for the weird. Woodrow and Dinah bond with the other nominees and explore a potential connection as Midge and Augie work through their intimacy issues and Midge’s latest script together. While in the levels above, interpersonal dynamics between cast and creatives begin to evolve too.

It would be wrong to say that Asteroid City is a bad film; it is not. There is much to enjoy here. Ostensibly, the story about a group of Junior Stargazers and their families being awarded more than medals for their curiosity about the cosmos on its own justifies the price of entry. And the levels beyond the central story are more intriguing; the parallels between play and players; the way fleeting bonds are sought and lost; what we share and what we conceal.

Unfortunately, annoying title cards and shallow characterisations intrude on the meandering narrative to ensure that it’s impossible to get lost in its charm or ponder any of the fleeting questions it poses. We are never allowed to forget the artifice. Asteroid City is, predictably, absolutely gorgeous to look at – arguably among Anderson’s loveliest confections – with a quirky story that beckons a curious audience inside to learn more. But those enchanting views are stage flats (practically and metaphorically) and the story hemmed in by its ambition.

It brings to mind Schichttorte, the fiendishly perfect twenty-layer cake beloved by television baking shows. Like a Schichttorte, every layer of this film has fine and tempting ingredients mixed to perfection. And every single layer is pancake flat, crushed by the weight of the sheer number of ideas, aesthetic flourishes and starry faces Anderson has piled on top of the last. Until the beautiful ephemeral questions about grief, connection and coming-of-age at every age get smothered under its immaculate frosting.

Asteroid City is in cinemas from June 23rd