Don’t Look Up
- Director: Adam McKay
- Writer: Adam McKay,
- Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Ron Perlman, Timothée Chalamet
Don’t Look Up is billed as director Adam McKay’s return to straight-up comedy after the Oscar-bait offerings of The Big Short and Vice. While it’s true that the film has more lighthearted bits of comedy than his most recent films, it continues the downward trajectory of his career as a maker of satire aimed at the easiest of targets. There’s plenty of satire to be mined from the end of the world – in this case an impending asteroid – but Don’t Look Up limps around for 145 minutes trotting out the same lazy observations without having anything new or interesting to say.
I will admit that I had gotten my hopes up that the film would be a return to form for McKay, simply based on the impressive cast he’s assembled: between its massive roster, they share 8 Academy Awards for acting, plus too many additional nominations to tabulate. With a cast consisting of contemporary greats like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Ron Perlman, and Timothée Chalamet (plus many more!), how could the film be anything but fun? As it turns out, McKay’s script, which he co-wrote with David Sirota, treads over territory that has been run into the ground since the outset of the Trump administration.
The film opens with Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), a PhD candidate astronomer who discovers a comet hurtling its way toward Earth, which is big enough to destroy all life within the next 6 months. She alerts her colleague, Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio), and they set out to warn the President (Streep), with help from a Dr. Oglethorpe (Morgan), a top scientist that can lend their claim some extra credibility. President Orlean, along with her doofus Chief of Staff (Hill), who is also her son, resists making any decision because of the impending midterms and the looming crisis over her cartoonishly unqualified Supreme Court nominee. You don’t have to be a political junky to see the Trump references coming through clear as day, and the film only doubles down as it goes on.
Not wanting the fate of the human race to be pushed aside any longer, the trio set out on a media tour to warn everyone. One scene sees them on a consequence-free basic cable news show hosted by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett, where they’re similarly dismissed because the news is too grim for their audience. This is the film’s funniest scene, mostly due to Perry and Blanchett’s light banter and natural chemistry.
Don’t Look Up‘s tagline is that it’s “Based on Truly Possible Events”. The parallels to an impending comet with the current climate crisis and our general indifference – or, in some cases, resistance – ring extremely close to home, but this is material that’s been mined for laughs from the likes of The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live for years by now. The film ends up as just another showcase for McKay’s darkly nihilistic anti-comedy masquerading as satire. As with Vice and The Big Short, he sees those in power as the bad guys, and we’re the suckers that live at their behest. Or, as Hill’s Jason Orlean puts it at a Trumpian mega-rally against the very existence of a comet, “There’s three types of people: you, the working class; us rich folks in power; and them, the enemy.”
Despite the film’s tired approach to its material, it does mine solid performances from everyone involved – with the exception of Ariana Grande, who constantly sounds like she was dropped into production at the last minute with no time to rehearse. DiCaprio brings a weary anxiousness to the role which he plays to extremes whenever he’s given the spotlight. Lawrence, sorely missing from big films lately, imbues Kate with righteous anger at the situation at every turn, especially after being the subject of mockery from the internet. Mark Rylance appears as a goofy tech guru, a la Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. It doesn’t take a film expert to predict that he’s revealed to be a money-motivated monster, regardless of his – and his company’s – impending doom.
Hill and Streep slip nicely into the roles of dim-witted evildoers with too much power, but I found myself wondering why the film had to have such distractingly high-profile actors in these spots. Sure, I’d want an actress like Streep in my movie no matter the role, but the material doesn’t warrant the gravitas that Streep brings to it. And then there’s Chalemet, who does his best, but he’s given little to no material or screen time. There are no small roles, only small actors. In the case of Don’t Look Up, there are mostly just over-qualified actors everywhere you turn.
Don’t Look Up is also edited to death. Too often, the film will cut away from a scene right when it reaches its dramatic or comedic peak, only to cut back to it moments later. The aforementioned scene at the White House features several quick cuts to random objects in the room, like a historical painting or a knick-knack on the president’s desk. Sometimes these instances work, like in the finale when McKay depicts the world’s reaction to the comet, but more often than not, they speak to the film’s scattered messaging.
It’s clear that McKay intended Don’t Look Up to be an updated Network for the TikTok generation. He even gives DiCaprio his own Howard Beale-esque moment on live TV where he tries to break through the spin of the news cycle. But whereas Network skewered Americans’ reliance on television to get information, McKay’s film tries to make a mockery of the “fake news” phenomenon and our willingness to ignore the bad news of the world. Again, this is material that’s ripe for the picking, and McKay’s early filmography suggests that he can create a goofy, memorable atmosphere, but at virtually every opportunity, McKay punches down.
- This is one of the tougher predictions of the year. As dreadful as the film is, McKay is beloved by the Academy (perhaps that’s why he was able to rope in so many A-Listers). The Big Short got 5 nominations and won Best Adapted Screenplay. Vice was less well-received than Big Short, and it netted 8 nominations and one win for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Don’t Look Up could follow in their footsteps and rake in nominations, or it could be left in the cold.
- The Academy won’t completely ignore DiCaprio and Lawrence but it could ultimately depend on box office and public reception. The competition for DiCaprio is thinner, but they rarely award comedies like this, especially if it falls flat at the box office.
- Maybe there’s a world where McKay competes in Best Original Screenplay. He’ll have to go against heavyweights like Paul Thomas Anderson and Kenneth Branagh and Wes Anderson.
- The field for Makeup and Hairstyling this year is relatively thin, but I could see the film receiving a nomination here. DiCaprio and Lawrence both have distinctive looks that underscore their characters’ lots in life, along with Rob Morgan and Meryl Streep’s looks.
Don’t Look Up premieres in theaters on December 10 and on Netflix on December 24.
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