Everyone in Asteroid City is obsessed. Each character is achingly devoted to their craft, be it writing or acting or pushing the bounds of scientific innovation; and, just as Wes Anderson does himself, everyone is telling their story.

Asteroid City juggles an expansive ensemble-esque cast and stars Jason Schwartzman as Augie Steenbeck, a war photographer with four kids who carries the ashes of his recently–deceased wife in a Tupperware bowl as blue as the Southwestern sky. Or maybe it stars Jason Schwartzman as Jones Hall, an actor starring alongside Mercedes Ford (playing Midge Campbell, played by Scarlett Johansson) in Asteroid City, a play written by Conrad Earp (Edward Norton) and directed by Schubert Green (Adrien Brody). Or maybe it stars Jason Schwartzman as whatever unnamed actor is playing Jones Hall, because Asteroid City is a movie about a TV broadcast of a play about the making of Asteroid City, the play.

Yeah. Weirdly, it’s not as hard to follow as you’d expect while watching it.

The film, Anderson’s eleventh, is set in 1955, and fluctuates between the play itself and the TV broadcast. The film makes this distinction clear with the TV broadcast being shown in black and white and the play sections being filmed in a gorgeously overexposed palette of blues and oranges. It’s convoluted, but the central rumination on storytelling is a compelling one, though it gets equal parts lost and over–explained from time to time. Although it sometimes undercuts itself with characters outright expressing what they’re feeling in what feels to be an upsettingly flagrant violation of “show don’t tell,” Asteroid City recaptures a sense of relatable passion that was lost in the frustratingly self–congratulatory and over–produced French Dispatch.

These are the two concurrent storylines: In the first, a TV host (Bryan Cranston) introduces a broadcast about a playwright, a director, and their actors. We see foley and half–painted sets. We see the growth of a relationship between Norton’s playwright and Schwartzman’s purpose–seeking actor, and we see the disintegration of the director's marriage to his wife (Hong Chau) as he finds himself spending too much time working on Asteroid City. We see an acting class headed by Willem Dafoe and populated by a healthy mix of Anderson’s go–to actors and newcomers. But Anderson generally follows Norton’s obsession with his play and Schwartzman’s obsession with the movie. Schwartzman spends the majority of his broadcast storyline trying to figure out why Augie, his Asteroid City character, intentionally burns his hand on a grill. He doesn’t get a solid answer.

In the second storyline, Schwartzman and his kids (Woodrow, played by Jake Ryan, and an adorable set of weird triplet girls) are spending a few days in Asteroid City, a made–up Southwestern town with a population of less than a hundred, where Woodrow is attending a convention of prodigy inventors. Augie, a war photographer and recent widower, strikes up a rapport with Midge Campbell, a workaholic actress with a history of bad relationships. They are, as Johansson flatly outright states, two people with a lot of grief who aren’t handling their grief all that well, and they become a shoulder for the other to cry on.

Woodrow, meanwhile, strikes up a relationship with Midge’s daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards). They, along with the rest of Asteroid City, are privy to an alien (Jeff Goldblum) interrupting a ceremony to steal the city’s eponymous asteroid. Asteroid City is then put under governmental lockdown, its residents and visitors are detained and questioned in an era–appropriate McCarthy–esque manner, and Woodrow, Dinah, and the other nerdy kids decide to fight the power and find a way to leak the story to the outside world. 

Asteroid City is a movie about stories. Everyone in this movie is obsessed with something, but I’d go so far as to say that everyone in this movie is an obsessed artist; even the obsessed scientists are, at their core, obsessed creatives. Midge is at her most expressive when she rehearses a suicide, after which Augie shows her a self–portrait where he’s bleeding from being struck with shrapnel. Their own almost–deaths are art. 

And that can feel indulgent at times. Wes Anderson is, surely, an obsessed artist himself. But it works. Asteroid City is about stories and storytelling, and the power that a narrative can hold. There’s the literal uncontainable story about the alien, and the more emotional standpoint with Augie, Midge, and Schwartzman’s eternally confused actor who, despite it all, keeps telling the story. 

That’s not to say that Asteroid City doesn’t suffer from a handful of the same issues that previous Anderson works have. As is the case in all Wes Anderson movies, the female characters feel more like part of the cartoonishly two–dimensional scenery than they do living, breathing people. The flat effect Anderson has his actors take on works in some places and falls short in other places; the most obvious example of this is the juxtaposition between Schwartzman and Johansson. Schwartzman has been acting in Wes Anderson movies since his debut in my favorite Anderson movie, Rushmore, at age 18, and Johansson is a first–timer who is clearly less comfortable with this style and can’t quite manage to pull it off. 

The biggest issue with Asteroid City, though, is Wes Anderson’s obedience to form. The movie’s strict devotion to its play structure, along with an absolutely mammoth cast, half of which haven’t even been mentioned here, make it a bit hard to feel as immersed in either world. I left without having really connected with any one character other than perhaps Augie, something that felt facilitated by this strict delineation of parts that regularly interrupted the movie and made it difficult to truly become immersed. It’s not that incorporating a framing device in a movie, or even a Wes Anderson movie, is impossible. Indeed, he does it not only seamlessly, but to the benefit of the movie in both The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Royal Tenenbaums. But with Asteroid City, structure seemed to be simply for structure’s sake, and it got in the way of the essence of story.

Additionally, Asteroid City is so obviously a movie. While a nod to TV and live theater was appreciated, it felt unsubstantial. Perhaps it would have been stronger if Norton’s playwright was a screenwriter. Perhaps it would have felt more like an appreciation for other forms of storytelling if it wasn’t as Wes–Anderson–y. Either way, though I felt deeply compelled by this story about stories, I found it hard to fall for Wes Anderson’s insistence that I should be compelled by a story about these people. 

Still, I found Asteroid City to be quite a good movie. It was remarkably easy to follow despite its layers. The script is emotional, funny, and compelling, and Schwartzman in particular gives a fantastic performance. Of course, I would be remiss to not mention the stunning shot compositions and color grading throughout, but the standout technical element for me was a refrain in the score that would play from time to time—a sort of evocative sci–fi leitmotif played on chimes and strings. 

But my central reason for enjoying Asteroid City is what it has to say about telling stories, and what it has to say about living life. 

Schwartzman’s actor character spends the entire film asking himself, his costars, and his playwright why Augie burns his hand on the grill, and gets different answers from all of them. But the best answer, and the answer that epitomizes what Asteroid City (the movie) is about, comes from Brody’s diSuperhero Fatigue is Realrector. 

Schwartzman asks, tearfully, if he’s “doing it right.” He asks, “Do I just keep doing it without knowing anything? Isn’t there supposed to be some kind of an answer out there in the cosmos? … I still don’t understand the play.” 

Brody replies, “Doesn’t matter. Just keep telling the story.”