The Pitch: What would happen if you found out the world was ending and — get this — no one in power was going to do anything about it? That’s the discovery that Michigan State astronomers Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) make, right after scoping out a nine-kilometer comet that’s about to slam into the Earth in six months’ time. Their entreaties to the aloof President of the United States (Meryl Streep) and her sycophantic failson Chief of Staff (Jonah Hill) fall on deaf ears; they’ll cling to even the .01% chance the two Midwestern hayseeds are wrong.
To drum up public support for any effort to deflect the comet, Mindy and Dibiasky go on a whirlwind media tour that takes them from the smug, peppy cohosts of a morning talk show called the Daily Rip (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett) to a benefit concert featuring a pair of vapid pop stars played by Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi. But they’ll soon learn what happens when the panicked desperation of the sincere meets the willful ignorance of a public who’d rather keep track of celebrity breakups than the end of the world. Gee, where have we heard that one before?
The “The Other Guys” Guy: Adam McKay has had a curious career as a filmmaker, almost the opposite tack as his fellow Frat Pack-adjacent colleague David Gordon Green. Where Green started as a dramatic filmmaker who shifted to a close association with Danny McBride, McKay kicked off his career as an SNL writer, and later spun that collaboration into hit comedy after hit comedy with former best friend Will Ferrell (we hope those two kids make up soon).
But a few years ago, McKay got bit by the political bug, and his films since — 2015’s The Big Short, 2018’s Vice — have been broad, nasty social satires that pinball wildly between nihilistic comedy and Occupy Democrats-level centrist screeds.
It’s a tradition that continues, though in different form, in his latest, 2021’s Don’t Look Up, a film that so desperately wants to be Network (right down to late-film Howard Beale tirades) but just ends up feeling like a big-budget Twitter thread made manifest. Granted, it’s better than the self-satisfied Vice by a huge margin, but it still doesn’t excuse the sanded-down Southland Tales we’ve been given here.
Bread and Circuses: McKay has copped to Don’t Look Up being an overt metaphor for humanity’s indifference in the face of climate change, and it’s not hard to see the parallels. In fact, McKay makes it exceedingly easy: The satire here is broad and obvious, unmissable by anyone who’s paid attention to the news or social media in the last decade. Everyone’s got a nifty excuse for ignoring the fact that civilization as we know it is about to end: Politicians are up for re-election, CEOs have money to make, social media gadflies and the news media gravitate towards the next shiny bit of celebrity gossip. If it’s not delivered through the pearly-white veneers of a smiling, airbrushed Blanchett, the public just doesn’t give a shit.
Eventually, that treacly media bubble starts to infect our two leads. DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy slowly starts to buy into his own press; his more comforting, uplifting message and daddy vibes makes him more palatable to the masses, and he’s suddenly the face of reassurance amid a public all too eager to ignore catastrophe. Lawrence’s Dibiasky, on the other hand, is immediately dismissed as a hysterical woman and memed into obscurity by the Internet and her clickbait-journalist boyfriend (Hamish Patel), who immediately turns their relationship into an “I Dated the Crazy Girl” article.
McKay’s films are often unsubtle, but that’s often hidden or excused by their essay-film auspices. Here, that same obviousness is transplanted to a more traditional narrative film to mixed results. Moments of tenderness feel like a distraction, like DiCaprio’s deteriorating marriage to his patient, pragmatic wife (Melanie Lynskey) or a late-film romance between DiBiasky and Timothée Chalamet as a Evangelical skater punk. After a while, you start to wonder whether McKay even thinks we’re worth saving. (Funny, considering with his wealth and largesse he’d probably be the first person on the spaceship fleeing Earth.)
You’re Telling a Story: Granted, McKay’s presentation remains top-notch: No matter how obvious the metaphors or over-the-top the characters, it’s couched in the crisp prestige trappings of an awards-caliber film. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography shifts effortlessly between the handheld immediacy of our character’s entreaties and the polished Steadicam of the bread-and-circuses world they have to battle. Nicholas Britell’s score pulls a similar tightrope act, flitting from baroque seriousness to cacophonous freestyle jazz that embodies a world tragically lost in distraction.
The cast is naturally a who’s-who of big stars, putting in yeoman’s work amid the broader archetypes they’re asked to play. DiCaprio and Lawrence do their best to ground the proceedings in a suitable level of outrage, even as the high-profile world of the media starts to change (or crush) them in unexpected ways. (DiCaprio gets another long-take panic attack scene for his reel.)
The rest of the ensemble gets a few moments in the sun, Mad Mad Mad Mad World-style. Streep’s transparently corrupt, aloof President Orlean is a perverse mixture of Hillary and Trump, a #girlboss president who nonetheless has a framed picture of her with Steven Seagal in the Oval Office. Hill’s basically just there to throw in some signature Frat Pack ad-libs, a bit of narrative chaos which admittedly works more often than it doesn’t. And Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi’s benefit-concert track “Just Look Up” is a refreshing bit of cotton candy.
They don’t all land, though; Mark Rylance’s tech-genius billionaire basically feels like his all-powerful character from Ready Player One, childlike falsetto and all. Plus, poor Rob Morgan, an incredible actor, is ostensibly the third lead as a NASA astronomer who supports Mindy and Dibiasky’s findings, but gets little to do but play straight man to the broader personalities around him.
The Verdict: The biggest problem with McKay’s stuff is that he thinks he’s the next Paddy Chayefsky, bringing down untold wisdom from on high and proclaiming disdain at the blinkered, media-soaked vagaries of our world. Unfortunately, he’s bought too deeply into his hype as a vivid truth-teller of society’s ills, and that smugness has infected too much of his films’ fabric.
As showy and facile as The Big Short was, it at least seemed to be angry for us at being screwed out of our futures by the super-rich. With Vice, and now this? McKay is angry at us for not paying enough attention, which makes for frustrating viewing. (News flash, Adam: The only people who are going to be watching your film are the folks who already agree with you anyways, and anyone who doesn’t won’t be convinced by smarmy browbeating.) Don’t Look Up doesn’t pull any punches, especially in its final scenes, but the longer it sits with you it feels like those punches are being thrown at a strawman.
Where’s It Playing? Don’t Look Up sketches out the end of the world, then looks down on you with a smug “I told ya so” in theaters on December 10th before moving to Netflix to depress your family on Christmas Eve.