It’s true that filmmaker Adam McKay has a pretty devoted following. His six(ish) hit-or-miss comedy collaborations with Will Ferrell earned him a pretty enthusiastic fan base. Then in 2015 he tried something a little different with the intriguing but exhausting “The Big Short”. He followed it with the bloated and insufferable “Vice”, a movie that showed what can happen when indulgences run wild.
I tend to approach any new McKay film with tempered expectations and a fair amount of caution. That’s precisely what I did with “Don’t Look Up”, his new star-studded affair first announced in 2019 by Paramount Pictures and then acquired by Netflix. It’s another big grab for the streaming leader and a movie with obvious awards season ambitions.
As it turns out, “Don’t Look Up” is a welcomed surprise and a considerable step up from McKay’s last film. It’s a cynical and biting satire in the grandest sense of the word. The film takes aim at everything from our culture, to our politics, to the basic way we interact with each other. Nothing is safe or sacred. Cable news, social media, big tech, the entertainment industry – all find themselves in McKay’s crosshairs.
It’s also really funny. In contrast to “Vice”, which was too full of itself and left McKay resembling the political left’s comic version of Dinesh D’Souza (but with a bigger budget and a great cast), “Don’t Look Up” is a craftier blend of McKay’s early silliness and later message-driven storytelling. The result is a laugh-out-loud, gag-a-minute romp full of well-placed jabs at nearly every hot button issue of our day (and several lukewarm ones as well). There’s so much crammed into this movie, and it’s a miracle that (for the most part) McKay manages to hold it all together.
While he has never been one to hide his own political slant, here McKay actually takes a broader look at the world, finding that there’s plenty of scrutiny to go around. His film confronts modern society’s division, arrogance, self-righteousness and backwards thinking, revealing what could happen if we continue to let those things ferment. In essence, his movie is saying our world is full of dumb people, many of them in positions of power and influence. And it’s a condition that permeates both sides of the political aisle and every social class.
Of course McKay examines all of the above through his own bluntly comical lens, highlighting the absurdity of our positions, obsessions, and reactions often to a chorus of laughter. And while his script deserves a lot of credit, he’s helped by an all-star cast who seem completely in-sync with McKay’s wacky rhythm.
At the top is Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, two good-looking Hollywood stars garnished with hideous mops in an effort to make them look more like the rest of us (I’ve read both were drawn by the movie’s themes, but I’m sure the $55 million Netflix paid them didn’t hurt). Leo plays Dr. Randall Mindy, an intensely antsy small-fry astronomer who leads a team of Michigan State grad students. Lawrence plays Dr Kate Dibiasky, Randall’s manic research partner and a Ph.D. candidate who makes the big discovery that sets the movie in motion.
It turns out that a nearly ten-kilometer-wide comet is barreling towards Earth. After crunching the numbers Kate and Randall determine that the “planet killer” should arrive in six months resulting in an extinction level event. The duo contacts Dr. Clayton “Teddy” Oglethorpe (played by the always superb Rob Morgan), an esteemed scientist who helps them get an audience with the President of the United States, Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep).
The comedy really kicks into gear when the three scientists arrive at the White House. There’s a hilarious Oval Office scene where Randall, Kate, and Teddy attempt to warn the President and her oblivious administration. They quickly learn that optics, poll numbers, and the upcoming mid-terms carry more weight than the looming Armageddon. This is also where we get a good taste of Jonah Hill’s Jason Orlean, the President’s spoiled son and her Chief of Staff. Normally Hill is an actor I can only take in small doses. But here his pinpoint improv-heavy delivery offers some of the film’s biggest laughs.
Adding to the fun is Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as two incredibly pompous cable news hosts (both are great). Ron Pearlman gets one of the funniest monologues I’ve heard in years. Timothée Chalamet pops up and gets some good lines as a skater-boy named Yule. And with his snowy white hair, pearly uppers, and cosmetically smoothed skin, Mark Rylance is hysterical as the celebrity CEO of a huge tech company.
The movie makes an unexpected pivot at around the two-hour mark. The humor mostly evaporates and the story takes a more serious turn. In one sense it loses some steam as it veers away from its biggest strengths. It’s also where the movie’s running time becomes noticeable (it clocks in at a whopping 145 minutes). But the shift in tone isn’t without purpose. McKay wants to ensure that we don’t miss the point of his movie. He wants us to stop, think, and feel. For the most part he succeeds.
The humor in “Don’t Look Up” ranges from subtle to ridiculous, and there are a number of fun callbacks to movies like “Network”, “Dr. Strangelove“, and even (gulp) “Armageddon”. Yet there’s more to glean from this waggish doomsday comedy. It’s an indictment of our tech dependent society. It’s an on-the-nose allegory for climate change. But most effectively, it’s a stinging examination of a divided nation and its inability to communicate. It’s an urgent issue that demands consideration. McKay just lets us laugh while we do so.