2021 | rated R | starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Rob Morgan, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance | directed by Adam McKay | 2 hrs 18 mins |
Ever since Adam McKay ended his Will Ferrell slapstick comedy The Other Guys with a Powerpoint presentation on how a Ponze scheme works, the director has had a difficult time balancing his comic medium with the messages he so ardently wants to beat us over the head with. Not that he thinks that. Unlike his political counterpart Jay Roach (Bombshell, Trumbo, Recount), McKay’s approach is always to put the message first and worry about making the movie work second. Don’t Look Up is a message movie with a capital M, thinly disguised behind a large cast and a darkly comic premise that looks like satire, but doesn’t quite work . Warning, if this review gets political that’s only because this is the fight that McKay picked.
Astronomer Dr. Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and PHD student Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet based on their calculations will with 100% certainty collide with the Earth in 6 months and kill every living thing on it. Their first stop is to the White House where President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and the Chief of Staff, her son (Jonah Hill) advise to hold and assess until they get their Supreme Court nominee through and past the mid-terms. Frustrated, Mindy and Kate do a media blitz and find a complete lack of interest in their dire warnings, people with their heads comfortably in the sand lead around by politicians out for their own gain, the two work through public apathy to stop the impending apocalypse.
Don’t Look Up is a big ambitious movie in which McKay tries to pull together an Armageddon-style large scale disaster movie with a political satire. To get through it he keeps everything on Easy Mode. The comedy is broad, the actors are cartoonish, the satire aims wide at “everyone” without understanding the hows and whys behind any of it. The comet stands in for climate change, Covid or plug in whatever that month’s political hysteria you don’t think the world is turning itself upside down to fix. Except of course, I doubt, say, the Fed printing money into worthlessness and wracking up crippling national debt was on McKay’s whiteboard of comet metaphors.
I hate to bring Dr. Strangelove into this, as I wouldn’t expect any movie to hold up to Stanley Kubrick’s back comedy prototype masterpiece, but McKay sort of invites it. Mocking inept politicians fiddle with trivialities in the face of a countdown to world destruction is Strangelove‘s bread and butter. Notice how seriously that movie treats it’s threat. That all the comedy has a tension to it that pumps it up. How slim and biting it is. By contrast Look is scattershot, over-edited and unfocused. The mechanics of this start to get in the weeds so let’s walk through it.
The chief issue with Don’t Look Up is how DiCaprio and Lawrence’s characters are drawn. They start at a 10, hamming it up with no place to go higher. Mindy is a flustered, sweaty, soft-spoken mess and Kate is emotional and reactionary. They are the two worst people in the world to be delivering the message they need to deliver. If you’re satire is going to be that people have their head in the sand against overwhelming scientific evidence, why does the movie have it’s two scientist figures look like fumbling bumbling fools, muddling and undermining the message at every single turn? They never even produce a telescopic image of the comet. Because McKay thought it would be funny to have DiCaprio play Nerd and Lawrence play Crazy and that this would add to the Kubrickian lunacy of it all? On that note, the only person here playing subtle, Mark Rylance, steals the show as the on-the-spectrum tech genius of the Bash company. It’s one of the few bits in the movie that works because it isn’t so completely on the nose.
With that colossal miscalculation at the heart of the film, McKay then goes about the business of finger-pointing. Subtlety and nuance are not this movie’s forte. They say good comedy is rooted in truth, here McKay has the truth (or a reasonably accurate depiction of our pop culture degeneracy), but forgot the comedy. Strung together with painfully unfunny running gags the film’s central metaphor is forced to carry the entire overly long 2 1/2 hour freight train. McKay blames on-the-take politicians, media outlets that want to keep their content “light” (who does that in the fear-mongering climate of 2021?), the incestuous relationship between Silicon Valley and Washington (while pretending it’s across the board and not confined exclusively to one party), people for being addicted to smartphones and not tech giants for making smart phones addictive, big oil harvesting the environment and a literal ‘Don’t Look Up’ campaign inside the movie without a hint of awareness that the more accurate analogy to keeping people in the dark is the Youtube/social media campaign of censorship by said tech giants. Who he leaves out of the spotlight – movies.
Hollywood has always had a hand in using it’s products to influence the masses, but in 2017, in the wreckage of the #MeToo movement, they pulled the curtain back and became more transparent than every about exactly how self-aware they are about using their influence to normalize issues to create political and social change, when they do it and how it works. They know exactly how to get a massive amount of people to either support or ridicule what they want them to. In 2021 it comes off completely tone-deaf for McKay to act like the biggest and most active propaganda machine in the world is powerless over the issues – or their own hand in keeping people distracted from those issues.
Don’t Look Up is big, broad, messy, contradictory and cartoonish. It’s unrelatedly mean-spirited until it suddenly decides it wants to be sentimental, in the final act going for small, local victories than the big government intervention it spend 2 hours advocating. It’s globalist, but it’s global catastrophe doesn’t go beyond American shores (depicting the Russian/China effort blowing up on the launch pad). The characters are all obnoxiously flat, without any growth in them or this one-joke story. It’s a briskly paced cinematic hissy fit, where McKay loses focus of who and what he wants to satirize in his attempt to run around pointing fingers at everyone. Well, everyone convenient for him to blame.