Don't Look Up
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence try to stop a comet wiping out life on earth in this big-budget satire, which tasks its star-studded cast with smugly pointing out the obvious.
December 23, 2021
UPDATE, December 23, 2021: Don't Look Up will be available to stream via Netflix on Friday, December 24.
Timing may be everything in comedy, but it's no longer working for Adam McKay. Back when the ex-Saturday Night Live writer was making Will Ferrell flicks (see: Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers), his films hinged upon comic timing. Ensuring jokes hit their marks was pivotal to his scripts, crucial during editing, and paramount to Ferrell and his co-stars. Since 2015, McKay has been equally obsessed with timeliness. More so, actually, in his latest film Don't Look Up. As started with The Big Short, which nabbed him a screenwriting Oscar, his current breed of politically focused satires trade not just in laughs but in topicality. Skewering the present or recent state of America has become the filmmaker's main aim — but, as 2018's Vice so firmly illustrated, smugly stating the obvious isn't particularly funny.
On paper, Don't Look Up sounds like a dream. Using a comet hurtling towards earth as a stand-in, McKay parodies climate change inaction and the circus that tackling COVID-19 has turned into in the US, and spoofs self-serious disaster blockbusters — 1998's double whammy of Deep Impact and Armageddon among them — too. And, he enlists a fantasy cast, which spans five Oscar-winners, plus almost every other famous person he could seemingly think of. But he's still simply making the most blatant gags, all while assuming viewers wouldn't care about saving the planet, or their own lives, without such star-studded and glossily shot packaging. Although the pandemic has certainly exposed stupidity on a vast scale among politicians, the media and the everyday masses alike, mining that alone is hardly smart, savvy or amusing. Again, it's merely stating what everyone has already observed for the past two years, and delivering it with a shit-eating grin.
That smirk is Don't Look Up's go-to expression among its broad caricatures — in the name of comedy, of course. Trump-esque President Orlean (Meryl Streep, The Prom) has one, as does her sycophantic dude-bro son/Chief of Staff Jason (Jonah Hill, The Beach Bum). Flinging trivial banter with fake smiles, "keep it light and fun" morning show hosts Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett, Where'd You Go, Bernadette) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry, Those Who Wish Me Dead) sport them as well. But PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, X-Men: Dark Phoenix) and her astronomy professor Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) aren't smiling when she discovers a Mount Everest-sized comet, then he realises it's on a collision course with earth and will wipe out everything in six months and 14 days. And they aren't beaming when, with NASA's head of planetary defence Dr Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan, The Unforgivable), they try to spread the word. The world is literally ending, but no one cares.
Conjuring up the premise with journalist/political commentator David Sirota, McKay turns Don't Look Up into a greatest-hits tour of predictable situations bound to occur if a celestial body was rocketing our way — and that've largely happened during the fights against climate change and COVID-19. The President's reactions stem from her clear-cut inspiration, including the decision to "sit tight and assess" until it's politically convenient or just unavoidable, and the later flat-out denial that anything is a problem. The character in general apes the same source, and bluntly, given Orlean is initially busy with a scandal surrounding her next Supreme Court nominee, and that her love life and the porn industry also spark headlines. The insipid media and social media response, favouring a rocky celebrity relationship (which is where Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi come in), is also all too real. The list goes on, including the memes when Dibiasky gets outraged on TV and the worshipping of Mindy as an AILF (Astronomer I'd Like to Fuck).
A Steve Jobs/Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk-style tech-company head (The Trial of the Chicago 7's Mark Rylance, putting in the movie's worst performance) also gets involved — poking fun at putting capitalism ahead of the planet's best interests — as does a stoner skater (Timothée Chalamet, The French Dispatch) enamoured with Dibiasky. The list goes on here as well, because Don't Look Up is as overstuffed as it is toothless. Satire is meant to use irony and exaggeration to highlight failings and flaws, but McKay pads out the bulk of his 138-minute film with first draft-style sketches and figures that say the bare minimum, then hops quickly from one to the other in the hope that something lands. Yes, amid its on-screen text explanations, montages of stock clips, a superfluous pop song and overactive editing, Don't Look Up has a comic timing problem, too. And the scenes it does hover on, including the grating White House confrontations, could've easily been cut in half.
McKay has zero faith in the world's ability to face existential and apocalyptic threats (understandably), and no hope his audience would notice if he didn't slickly spoon-feed surface-level commentary (insufferably), but he places plenty of responsibility upon DiCaprio, Lawrence and Morgan. The film's key trio aren't given much to work with, but everyone else — aside from the underused Melanie Lynskey (Yellowjackets) as Mindy's wife June — plays a one-note gag. Mindy is sweaty and swayed by attention; Dibiasky is defined by her two nose rings, flame-hued hair and the Wu-Tang Clan lyrics she's introduced singing; and Oglethorpe is the only competent government employee. It's a credit to all three actors that they turn in convincing performances and make their characters the most compelling part of Don't Look Up, although no one is anywhere near their best.
The entire planet definitely isn't at its finest in Don't Look Up, which is the whole overstressed point; however, in weakly holding up a mirror to truths everyone's already painfully familiar with, it didn't need to embody the same concept itself. Forget following in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb's footsteps, or Wag the Dog's, or mustering up an iota of Succession's astuteness (McKay is one of the latter's executive producers) — Anchorman felt shrewder and more incisive. Maybe Don't Look Up might've worked if it had pre-dated the pandemic. It undoubtedly would've been improved by ditching the puffed-up snark, as its closing scenes demonstrate; it's a far better movie when it switches to earnestness and even takes a few cues from Lars von Trier's immensely superior Melancholia, as unearned as the tonal change proves. Perhaps a humanity-is-damned flick that crashes itself is McKay's ultimate joke, though, because that's just the doomed world we find ourselves in.
Image: Nico Tavernise/Netflix.