“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

The phrase is probably most famous now for being the only sentence Jack Torrance wrote, over and over again, in Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining. The scene when Jack’s wife, Wendy, discovers that this is what her husband has been doing instead of writing his book is (among other things) a perfect expression of the horror of writer’s block, the unfathomably dull sterility of the “play” that a writer engages in—the varied geometric patterns that Jack makes on each page out of the many copies of his chosen phrase, for example—to avoid the deeper horror of work. Play, an intentionally purposeless activity, is supposed to loosen one up, connect one to one’s unconscious, allow for true creativity to emerge that would be cramped by the purposive intentionality of work. And it does. But as every artist knows, there’s a fine line between “I’m not working now because I need to clear my head” and “I’m not working now because I’m afraid”—of facing the blank page or canvas.

I’ve been thinking about that line ever since seeing Wes Anderson’s latest film, Asteroid City. Anderson has long been beloved of many cinephiles in part for his own highly distinctive style—the relentlessly symmetrical compositions and heightened color palate, the self-conscious artificiality of his meticulously detailed sets, the deadpan delivery of his actors—but in part simply because he has such a highly distinctive style. With Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino passing from the scene, Anderson is one of the few American auteurs still standing. His work is completely a product of his own personality, and his films aim first and foremost to be objects of art rather than populist entertainment, yet he has nonetheless built a large enough following to consistently attract top stars and the financing that comes with them.

That sounds like the description of not only a serious artist but an exceptionally serious one, one who refuses to compromise on his vision and works relentlessly to achieve his intended effects. And that is certainly true of Anderson. Yet, nevertheless, I frequently have the sense watching Anderson’s films that what he’s really doing is just playing. Not that this means that he isn’t serious—like some children, the kinds of children and the childlike adults who populate Anderson’s films, Anderson is intensely serious when he plays. Nonetheless, there is a difference between work and play, and the difference isn’t so much about their seriousness and intensity as their purposiveness. All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but the question I found myself asking when I contemplated Anderson’s oeuvre is: what happens to Jack when he does nothing but play? And if he treats that play as very serious work indeed?

Play has been Anderson’s central subject for his entire career. In some ways this is obvious; the closet filled with games that is so prominent in The Royal Tenenbaums, for example, or Max Fischer’s penchant for extravagant theatricality in Rushmore, or the way that his sets resemble doll’s houses. But it’s a deeper thematic interest than that. From his first feature film, Bottle Rocket (1996), Anderson was interested in—and largely on the side of—characters who are fundamentally playing at life. That film begins with Luke Wilson’s character, Anthony, being sprung from a psychiatric hospital by his friend, Dignan (played by his brother, Owen)—except there is no need to break him out; Anthony is there of his own free will and can walk out at any time. The two subsequently enter into a life of “crime” that is largely play-acting the idea of being criminals, and though their capers do land Dignan in prison, there’s nonetheless a kind of melancholy weightlessness to their every action, a sense that whatever they might do would just be playing a part or a game, and therefore that being in prison isn’t materially different from being outside.

That’s a potent idea for a character and a film about such a character, but a similar quality of melancholy weightlessness suffuses nearly all of Anderson’s films. In his strongest work, I can sense a weightier reality just off screen, feel it resting on the shoulders of certain characters, and through them understand their affection for the sad, young game-players who are the auteur’s surrogates and the primary focuses of his films. I think of Herman Blume, Bill Murray’s character in Rushmore, a middle-aged industrialist who befriends the school-age protagonist, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), then falls in love with the teacher Max has a crush on and becomes the object of Max’s quixotic revenge plots. While he clearly shares an affinity with Max, Herman Blume is an adult who comes from the real world, and we can see that world’s cares in his face even as he abandons them to play with Max (and pursue his new lover). 

Captain Sharp, Bruce Willis’s character in Moonrise Kingdom, is another one of these adults who come from the real world. His character’s motivation for attaching himself to Sam (Jared Gilman), the pre-teen orphan whose romantic escapades have caused all the trouble that the film captures so beautifully, isn’t midlife crisis but personal grief. But the reasons don’t actually matter; what matters is that there is an audience-surrogate in the film whom we recognize as being an adult, through whom we can appreciate and love characters like Max and Sam whether or not they also remind us of younger versions of ourselves. 

In what I consider Anderson’s strongest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, the central melancholy play-actor, Ralph Fiennes’s Monsieur Gustave H., is a wholly original creation who seems to have escaped the auteur’s grasp. For once I felt like Anderson was letting someone else play, and that I was joining him in delighted appreciation of a new game, rather being asked to appreciate Anderson himself and what he could do with his toys. Moreover, via a series of framing devices where the mitteleuropean confection of Gustave’s story is passed through the Communist interregnum, turned into fiction, and laid to rest in a cemetery in the present, Anderson has appropriated the voice of history itself, the ultimate adult observer character.

In his weakest films, by contrast, I can’t escape the feeling that Anderson himself is getting bored with his games, but can’t think of anything else to play. That’s certainly the feeling I got from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, where Bill Murray returns as the impenetrably vain title character, and in The Darjeeling Limited, where we once again have a trio of madcap boys (Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Adrian Brody) on an absurd but melancholic adventure, but this time with the impoverished people of India as baffled spectators. Those films are widely regarded as a slump in Anderson’s career, but I got the same feeling from more recent films such as Fantastic Mr. Fox and The French Dispatch. The compulsion to always be creating, always fussing, always coming up with another move, another invention, rather than find the stillness of being—that feeling that so often afflicts Anderson’s principal characters seemed in these films to have taken over the filmmaker himself. I found myself less engaged by the films than by wondering what Anderson was trying to avoid by all this relentless activity.

In Asteroid City, more than in any previous film, Anderson seems to be asking that question of himself. The film’s story is told through several layers of distancing devices, but unlike in The Grand Budapest Hotel these devices are less historical than formal and critical. He’s not asking “where does a story go?” but “where does it come from?” 

First, Asteroid City presents itself not as a movie but as a television show about the making of a play (also called Asteroid City). The play that the television show is supposedly about, however, is presented in the form of a movie, which constitutes the bulk of the film we are seeing. The elements from the supposed television show are presented in black and white, but so are backstage scenes related to the play—the private lives of the writer and the director, private conversations between the actors on the fire escape—that couldn’t plausibly be part of the television show. The play, presented as a film, is in color—and what color; it’s among the most striking palates Anderson has ever conjured, a symphony of teal and orange—such that it could only be a film. Yet that film revels in its own artificiality: the backdrops are obviously painted, as are the atomic clouds that periodically mushroom on the horizon; the train that brings people to town is obviously a toy; the police car and the delinquent’s hot rod it pursues, engaged in an endless shoot-out, plainly came out of a matchbox set. It has never been more obvious that Anderson is playing with his box of toys, nor more obvious that he wants us to know that he knows we know that.

The central narrative of Asteroid City is about a group of people in the 1950s who have gathered in the town of Asteroid City (which I assume is modeled on the real though barely extant town of Meteor City) for a convention of scientifically minded and accomplished youth competing for an award from a Defense Department–affiliated think tank. The melancholic father of one of these youth, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman) is a war photographer who has recently lost his wife, but hasn’t told his four children yet; the mother of another, Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), another melancholic, is a Hollywood star who seeks out damaged and discarded women to play. The kids are all incredibly precocious—plausibly, given that they are in Asteroid City for a science competition—and busy themselves with elaborate memory games when they aren’t jumping off the roofs of cabins. Midge, inexplicably, falls for Augie while her daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards), far more plausibly falls for Augie’s son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), since they are typical young Anderson romantic leads. All is proceeding as normal for a Wes Anderson movie until an alien spacecraft appears and lands, and an alien emerges to take the asteroid (or, rather, meteorite) for which the town is named.

In response, the government imposes a quarantine, which the children conspire to escape. Various characters wonder what the significance of the alien visit might be, and whether continuing their lives as before makes any sense in the context of this new information—but the film (or, rather, the play being presented as a film) isn’t really interested in pursuing either its narrative or its questions to any real conclusion. When it’s clear the quarantine has failed, it simply ends; it wasn’t part of some grand evil plan, but just a bureaucratic reflex. The alien turns out to have come not to save the planet from destruction or the characters from themselves, nor does it bring the prophecy of doom that Augie and Midge plainly wish it would; it came simply to catalogue the lump of space rock that fell out of its domain; after returning it to earth with a number stamped on its underside, the aliens depart without any further interaction. Most notably, neither the romance between the children nor that between the adults comes to any kind of head. In a typical Wes Anderson film, the characters would pursue their objectives to the end, even though they would end in inevitable disappointment. But Anderson has already told those stories. Perhaps he drops them partway here because he feels no need to tell them again.

That sense of restless boredom is so pervasive as to suggest itself as the true topic of the film (or the play within the film). But it also infects the backstage world of the frame story. We see how the actor who plays Augie gets the part by impressing the writer, Conrad Earp (Edward Norton), with how thoroughly he knows the character. Yet, when he comes to a crucial moment in the script—his character is supposed to burn himself deliberately on a hot plate—he is completely at a loss as to his motivation. Earp is no help, so he has to just go through the motions, having no idea why he is doing what he is doing. In another scene, a group of actors in a Stella Adler–esque seminar are told to go to sleep, and it is the noisiest, most active somnolescence you ever saw. It’s as though the entire world were afflicted with a case of sleepwalking, in both senses: both not being able to rest, and not being truly awake.

All of this could be taken as a comment on America in the 1950s, on that era’s weird combination of optimism and dread, activity and ennui—and it surely is that. And there may be something contemporary about that as well. The periodic atom bomb explosions are certainly as literal an expression of the off-stage weight that I was describing as can be imagined, but their explosion on the edge of Anderson’s dollhouse also feels like a remarkably prescient invocation of our “Barbenheimer” summer. But it struck me more profoundly as a comment by Anderson on his own work, or, rather, on his own play. He’s been playing this game for a long time, after all, and he’s gotten very good at it—but what is it ultimately for? Anderson’s creations have always run the risk of coming off as lifeless because they are so thoroughly his creations, with so little life of their own, but in Asteroid City Anderson seems to be fretting about that lifelessness. 

There are a number of moments in the film (like the acting seminar) that recall Stanislavski’s “method,” a new way of training actors that swept America in the 1950s, teaching them how to fully identify with and thereby create their characters, and imbue them with access to their own deepest emotions. The thematic relevance for Anderson’s work is clear, but in Anderson’s affectless hands these gestures read less like a struggle to access suppressed feeling and more like an attempt to defibrillate a stopped heart. Unlike the eponymous Barbie of Greta Gerwig’s film, Anderson’s characters have been thinking about dying from the beginning, and have been playing largely to avoid thinking about it all the time. With Asteroid City, it felt to me like Anderson was starting to ask himself whether that kind of behavior actually constitutes living, for them or for himself.

I think he already knows the answer. As is often the case with Anderson’s films, in Asteroid City I found the most life and the most interest in the characters who seemed the least dominated by Anderson’s peculiar intelligence, who seemed least like they were dolls pulled from his toy box. In Asteroid City, that was Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), Augie’s father-in-law, and Augie’s triplet daughters, Andromeda (Ella Faris), Pandora (Gracie Faris), and Cassiopeia (Willan Faris). Tom Hanks’s hallmarks have always been his authenticity and sincerity; even if they are the product of artifice (something I would have no way of knowing), he either can’t or won’t abandon them to serve Anderson’s design (or perhaps Anderson was wise enough not to ask him to). The result is that Stanley comes off as an alien himself, a visitor from earth to Anderson’s Asteroid, and through him I could feel, unaffectedly, how sad the inhabitants of that bare rock are, and how much that sadness affected him. As for Stanley’s granddaughters, they, like Gustave, seem to be their own creations. They form a witch’s coven to bury their mother’s ashes and cast a spell on them so that she will come back to life—which would seem to be more Andersonian play-acting to escape grief. But because they are too young to have aged into Andersonian precocity, they come off as authentically sad, weird children playing their own sad, weird games, as opposed to pure surrogates for the author’s own memory of being a lonely gifted child.

Again, I don’t know whether that was the case. Perhaps it is all artifice; perhaps Anderson got precisely the performance he wanted out of those girls by dint of constant repetition. But I want to believe that he didn’t. I want to believe that Anderson let these children play, as we should all give our children space to play; that, like their characters’ grandfather, he was delighted to watch rather than to direct them; and that because he did, and because he was, I was delighted to watch them as well.