Starting in 2015 with The Big Short, Adam McKay began to wade into more tricky subject matter than his usual comic fare collaborating with Will Ferrell. The change of pace has rewarded McKay with an Oscar win and seemed to herald the comedic writer-director with a stalwart pollical compass as the next filmmaker who could make an issue film interesting. His follow-up, Vice, won Oscars but seemed to be a more divisive, with many critics (rightfully) claiming that McKay was too on-the-nose in his examination of a former Vice President whose public life encapsulated 50 years of the conservative movement – yeah, it was on the nose; that was the point. Love him or hate him, McKay understands that you can do elegance or nuance with sledgehammer.
With its sprawling ensemble tackling a million different issues, Don’t Look Up never loses sight on its core message – the societal and political forces of America have us at point where we can’t prevent our own demise, and that’s an understandable and laudable message – the biggest problem is that Adam McKay’s satire is that it’s never hilarious. It’s simply consistently amusing. Therein lies my great frustration with Don’t Look Up – it’s constantly insightful and earnest in the failings and schisms of American culture, but it simply lacks laughs at the rate it aims for.
When doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet hurtling through the cosmos it’s at first a cause for celebration. But when her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) calculates the comet’s trajectory, he discovers that it’s on a collision course with Earth. The two astronomers reach out the NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office and its head Dr. Clayton Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) to share the grim news, hoping that the minds at NASA can dispute their dire calculations. Dr. Oglethorpe sets up a meeting with President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) at the White House, and the team of scientists are shocked to hear that political considerations are given more weight than an extinction-level threat. Randall and Kate decide they must ignore the political considerations and go to the press with their terrifying discovery. But the message is unable to break through, and quickly becomes a political football in a deeply divided country despite the fact that the fate of all existence lies in the balance.
Adam McKay is an astute observer of American dysfunction. In Don’t Look Up, he’s able to illustrate the broken incentive structure behind modern media and how quickly an issue of grave concern can quickly devolve into meme culture. This comes to life in two fantastic performances by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as a pair of vapid morning news hosts. Blanchett, especially, is excellent in capturing the ambitious hollowness of certain media types, products of nepotism and insider culture. The film is also very good at illustrating how American institutions can be undermined by cronyism and incompetence. Meryl Streep’s President Orlean is particularly hollow shell of a person, an arrogant narcissist who has hired her vulgar and dimwitted son Jason (Jonah Hill) as her Chief of Staff. At every level, Don’t Look Up examines the layers of insanity that is woven into the modern American experience with clear eyes and a bit of humor.
Therein lies the biggest problem with Don’t Look Up – it’s just not as funny as it could be. I don’t want to hear that the material is too grim to be funny. Dr. Strangelove is one of the funniest movies ever made and its also about the end of the world. I think the problem here is that the ensemble is just too sprawling, the targets too numerous for McKay to keep the film’s comedy focused on laughs over messaging. I chuckled throughout Don’t Look Up but the film lacks the big guffaws of McKay at his best.
Credit where it’s due, Don’t Look Up doesn’t waste its impressive and expansive cast. There’s not a bad performance in the movie, and it really proves that Adam McKay is one of the better actors’ directors working today. DiCaprio brings this nervous energy to his terrified astronomer. Lawrence brings the rage of being the last sane person in an insane world. The aforementioned Streep, Blanchett, and Hill are all equally captivating on the screen as members of the elite that are beyond clueless to the world outside of their immediate vision. Then there’s the particularly amusing performance of Mark Rylance as the smartphone billionaire Peter Isherwell, perhaps the best character in the film and the avatar for the uncurious arrogance that will usher the world towards doom.
Don’t Look Up’s allegory for American exceptionalism in the face of impending catastrophe is best realized in Rylance’s Isherwell. The solutions to the problem presented are simple. All it requires is action. However, in Isherwell there is mash-up of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos; an unabashed capitalist who wants to present themselves as some kind of forward-thinking visionary who talks all the right words about peace and equality yet is merely concerned with the bottom line. The way in which Isherwell injects himself into this situation only to be completely unable to deliver reminds me of so many publicity stunts that Musk has done, whether it’s his ridiculous inoperable submarine from a few years ago or his pledge to send ventilators during the early days of the pandemic and delivering broken, unusable CPAP machines. It’s another area where Don’t Look Up is clear-eyed in examining our societal dysfunction – the billionaires aren’t going to save us.
Judging by his previous films, I expected Don’t Look Up to either be a love it or hate it movie. Instead, it’s a very mixed bag. Adam McKay has made a film that is quite intelligent in understanding the various ways that our collective ability to solve big problems is broken on so many levels. It’s just a shame that these broken layers don’t add up to a truly effective comedy of errors. In the end, Don’t Look Up registers as a minor disappointment because it’s just lacking any real bite. It clearly identifies these cascading problems we’re facing but just can’t turn these issues into real big laughs. The end of the world isn’t hilarious. It merely elicits plenty of chuckles.
Don't Look Up
- Overall Score
An intelligent, clear-eyed sprawling satire, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up examines the many layers of American dysfunction in his story of a comet hurtling towards Earth, but the film winds up only being amusing instead of raucously hilarious.