REVIEW: “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (2022)

DC Films and the superhero movies they make may lack the overall fanfare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I love how they give filmmakers with unique voices the creative freedom to fully realize their visions. Whether it’s Patty Jenkins with “Wonder Woman”, Todd Phillips with “Joker”, James Gunn with “The Suicide Squad”, and even “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (although that one took a little doing). And just this year we’ve been treated to “The Batman” from Matt Reeves, an amazing film that certainly fits in the category of original works.

Marvel Studios has tried to do it themselves by handing key movies to individualistic directors. But the MCU’s head-honcho Kevin Feige holds a lot of influence, and Marvel’s model keeps every film beholden to some pretty strict guidelines. And in the few instances where directors have tried to balance originality with formula the results were pretty shaky. That is until the 28th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has (by far) been the most compelling of all the messy ‘Phase Four’ productions. A big reason is quite simple – director Sam Raimi. I’ve been an unapologetic Sam Raimi fan starting with his 1981 horror classic “The Evil Dead”. His affection for horror has stuck with him, but he’s no stranger to superhero movies. He was the man behind the Tobey Mcguire Spider-Man trilogy during the 2000s (“Spider-Man 2” is still one of the best superhero movies to this day).

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Now Raimi and his indelibly distinct style enters the MCU and the big question for me was simple – how much space would Feige and company give Raimi to make the movie he truly wanted to make? While there are a few moments that feel like studio demands, as a whole this is very much a Sam Raimi movie. And while 2016’s “Doctor Strange” was a very compact and fairly by-the-book origin story, its sequel couldn’t be more different.

Now I don’t wanna mislead anybody, this is still a Marvel movie as well. But Raimi brings a fresh jolt of energy that gives the MCU a kick it desperately needs. Yes it’s a little messy. Yes it doesn’t all come together as seamlessly as intended. But it’s that Raimi led chaos and risk-taking that makes the movie pop. Ultimately (and thankfully) “Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t feel like any other MCU movie to date. And that’s one reason I loved it.

Parsing through all of the story threads and multiverse hopping would be too much for a simple review. Just know you’ll need to pay attention because the movie has numerous moving parts. And while Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron bounce us around from point and point and place to place, they do so with a remarkable amount of control. When thinking back, I can remember several times when this thing could have flown off the rails. But Raimi manages to connect most of the dots and holds the story together which turns out to be an impressive feat unto itself.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

“Multiverse of Madness” may be a chore for the MCU uninitiated. That’s because it leans pretty heavy on past Marvel material, specifically the Disney+ limited series “WandaVision” and last year’s blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home”. If you remember, in “Spidey”, a temporarily inept Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) botched a spell that essentially splits open the Multiverse, opening our universe up to the infinite others in existence. Now he fully comes face-to-face with the consequences.

Meanwhile, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) has been consumed by her sorrow and gone into hiding following the events of “WandaVision”. She’s found by Strange who seeks her help after he rescues a young girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from an octopus demon (yep, you read that right). We learn America has the ability to open doorways to other dimensions in the Multiverse – a power the demons want to harness for themselves. The problem is she can’t control her powers which is how she ended up in their world.

But Strange is shocked to learn that Wanda has been using a book of black magic known as the Darkhold and has fully embraced her Scarlet Witch alter-ego. She wants America’s dimension-bopping power for herself in order to travel to another universe and reunite with the children she willed into existence during “WandaVision”. Olsen steals the show as the emotionally damaged Wanda whose story is arguably the saddest in the MCU. Here her actions become undeniably sinister, yet they’re rooted in genuine humanity which makes her story all the more tragic.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Soon Strange is zipping across the Multiverse in an effort to keep America out of Wanda’s grasp. Along the way he encounters variants of himself, meets a few old faces, and is introduced to some new ones. I won’t spoil who all pops up, but several appearances earned pretty hearty applauses from the crowd I was a part of.

One of the biggest treats is how we finally get to see Wanda utilize her full power. There was a thrilling glimpse of it in “Avengers: Endgame” and “WandaVision” dabbled in it a bit. But here the character is let loose. Olsen embodies every ounce of Wanda, from her sheer look to her emotional complexities. Cumberbatch has made Doctor Strange his own and he’s much more in tune with the character here than in last year’s Spider-Man movie. Gomez doesn’t fare as well. Her performance is fine, but America feels more like a plot device. She’s there to give Wanda someone to pursue and Strange someone to protect. And of course she’s there to set up her upcoming Disney+ series.

My love for this movie ultimately comes back to Raimi who hits the ground running and never slows down. While it’s certainly a little messy in spots, “Multiverse of Madness” is such a welcomed departure from the canned formulaic feel of most of the ‘Phase Four’ MCU movies. This thing is absolutely and unapologetically bonkers and Raimi’s fingerprints are all over it. It has its challenges. I can’t imagine it resonating with those who haven’t soaked up previous MCU content, and it might be a jolt for those hooked on the normal Marvel Studios routine. But for me, the MCU needed a kick in the pants, and Sam Raimi was happy to gave it one.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Deep Water” (2022)

At first look you would expect a movie like “Deep Water” to be getting a lot more attention. After all, it’s led by A-lister Ben Affleck and rising star Ana de Armas. It’s an erotic psychological thriller directed by Adrian Lyne, the guy behind 1987’s not-so-great but wildly popular “Fatal Atrraction” and it’s shoddy (but profitable) siblings, 1993’s “Indecent Proposal” and 2002’s “Indecent Proposal”. Surprisingly, this is Lyne’s first film in twenty years.

Originally set for release in November 2020 by 20th Century Studios, the film was hit with several delays during the pandemic before being pulled from Disney’s theatrical release schedule. With little in terms of promotion, the movie debuts this weekend as a Hulu streaming exclusive . After seeing it, you can kinda get why it has been shuffled around so much. At the same time there are some interesting (and admittedly unexpected) strokes that grab your attention.

Image Courtesy of Hulu

Vic and Melinda Van Allen (Affleck and de Armas) are an unhappily married couple who have lost whatever spark originally brought them together. Vic made a fortune designing a computer chip for military drones. Now retired, he spends his time riding his mountain bike and raising snails down in the garage (yep….snails). Melinda loves drinking and gratuitously ‘flirting’ at parties with a number of male ‘friends’, often right in front her husband. Vic is rightfully incensed, but he’s no angel. To him Melinda is a possession, and his anger isn’t flowing from a broken heart.

Despite having lots of money, a big social circle, and a lovely young daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins), Vic and Melinda’s marriage seems doomed from the first moment we first lay eyes on them. It only sours from there. And it’s more than just sleeping in separate rooms or volleying insults at each other. Their relationship is toxic. Vic’s best friends (Lil Rel Howery and Dash Mihok) know that Melinda’s into more that just innocent frolicking, but Vic brushes off their warnings. And as things slowly fester, the couple’s depraved mind-games soon turn deadly.

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s best-selling novel, “Deep Water” (written for the screen by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson) puts us in the company of two truly awful people and leaves us there to observe as their relationship goes south. Truthfully, the movie is more trashy than erotic and more psychopathic than psychological. At times it seems to be perfectly content with being just that. Other times you get the sense that Lyne might be after something else.

Perhaps what’s most surprising is how straightforward the story turns out to be. I was expecting a movie plump with twists, turns and surprises, but there really aren’t many. Melinda is the biggest enigma and reading her is next to impossible. Is she licentious or psychotic? Some of both? The film doesn’t offer much clarity although it leaves you with a vague sense of who she may be. To be honest, the camera often seems more interested in her looks than the script. More emphasis is put into admiring de Armas’ beauty than really giving Melinda some much needed depth.

Image Courtesy of Hulu

Affleck gets a little more to work with as the film is focused on and mostly seen from Vic’s perspective. Affleck is both cryptic and thoroughly convincing. And he and de Armas have a striking chemistry (an actual off-screen romance developed during the shooting but has sense ended). Tracy Letts isn’t so lucky. He plays the couple’s friend (I think) Don, who doesn’t trust Vic from the start. He’s a woefully underwritten character with actions and motivations that make no sense whatsoever. He’s even more of a head-scratcher in the bonkers final act where things really get ridiculous.

After reading all that, “Deep Water” probably sounds like a mess, and it kinda is. There is an alluring quality to its trashy story, and I loved the unexpected bites of pitch black humor which caught me off guard every time. But its lack of compelling twists (or really any twists whatsoever) zaps the movie of some needed energy. And while the wonky final 15 minutes tries to compensate, it ends on a head-scratching note – one that doesn’t do the already shaky movie any favors. “Deep Water” premieres this Friday (March 18th) on Hulu.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Desperate Hour” (2022)

Naomi Watts plays a traumatized mother caught in a hopeless situation in “The Desperate Hour”, an appropriately titled new thriller from director Phillip Noyce. Written by Christopher Sparling, the story takes a well-intentioned look at an extremely sensitive subject but ends up undermining itself with some painfully bad second-half choices.

“The Desperate Hour” is very much a tale of two very different halves. The first half is absolutely terrific, offering a riveting setup and leaning on Watts’ incredible talent to pull us in and connect us emotionally. I was completely absorbed and invested. But then the second half comes along and takes an ill-advised turn. You can see it happening, and I found myself saying out loud “Please, don’t go there!” But it does go there, all for the sake of the genre expectations, and both the movie and the subject matter suffer as a result.

Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Watts does practically all of the heavy lifting, and for much of the movie she’s the only person we actually see. She plays Amy Carr, a widowed mother of two still working through her grief. It has been one year since her husband Peter was killed in a car accident. Feeling especially down, Amy takes a personal day off from work. She gets her young daughter Emily (Sierra Maltby) on the bus, but her troubled teenage son Noah (Colton Gobbo) won’t get out of bed. Amy hasn’t been able to connect with her son since his father died. Discouraged, she leaves Noah in bed and goes out for a jog.

Other than the final ten minutes, the rest of the movie is spent alone with Amy and her iPhone. She jogs for what seems like ten miles deep into the beautiful forest outside of town. For a while there’s no solitude as she gets calls from her mom, her job, her best friend, etc. She puts her phone on Do Not Disturb for some needed quiet time, but just as she’s alone with her thoughts an alert comes across her screen. There is an active shooter situation at the school and the entire town is on lockdown.

Deep in the forest and with no vehicle, Amy frantically makes calls to anyone she can for help. A 911 dispatcher, an autobody repairman, her daughter’s elementary teacher, and a co-worker are among the many voices she connects with over the phone. But she can’t find a ride, she begins losing her GPS signal, Noah won’t answer her calls, and the cops aren’t sharing any information. It all works as a truly emotional and nerve-shredding setup.

Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

But then the movie takes an ill-advised turn which leads to a series of bad creative choices that squash much of what the film had accomplished early on. Amy becomes a super-sleuth and the sheer number of conveniences needed to make the final act happen stretches the bounds of believability. But the biggest misstep is in how it uses the delicate subject of a school shooting as a plot device. I won’t spoil how, and to be fair that isn’t the movie’s intent. But by the end that’s exactly how it feels.

“The Desperate Hour” is one of the more frustrating movies I’ve seen over the last few years. For a while I was so intensely invested in the story and Watts’ performance really grabbed me. But then, as if falling in line with some kind of genre playbook, Sparling’s script veers off into some yucky territory. And the decision to explore grief through the tragedy of others doesn’t land well at all. Especially a tragedy that’s so real and devastating as a school shooting. Again, it should be said that Noyce and Sparling are going for something much different. But that doesn’t change how the movie ultimately feels. “The Desperate Hour” is out now in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Death on the Nile” (2022)

I’ve been hungry for a good old-fashioned whodunnit for a while now. So what better time for Kenneth Branagh to serve up his much-delayed Agatha Christie adaptation “Death on the Nile”. Branagh directs, produces and stars in this period mystery that’s based on Christie’s popular 1937 novel. And it’s the second installment in Branagh’s film series centered around renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (the first being 2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express”). I love that this cinematic universe is a thing.

Branagh returns as super-sleuth extraordinaire Hercule Poirot and he brings along another star-studded cast. This one includes Gal Gadot, Annette Benning, Russell Brand, Armie Hammer, Ali Fazal, Letitia Wright, Emma Mackey, Tom Bateman, Sophie Okonedo, Rose Leslie, and more. The story is handled by returning screenwriter Michael Green and it takes us from war-torn Belgium to a buzzing London to ancient Egypt where the over 4,000 mile Nile River snakes through its vast desert sands.

Branagh opens his film up with a backstory we never knew we needed – the origin of Poirot’s extravagant signature mustache. OK, so I’m being a little facetious. There’s a little more to the exquisitely shot prologue than that. Set in 1917 on a war-scarred Belgian battlefield, young Poirot’s keen sense of deduction saves his company. But he can’t save his captain who is killed by an explosion that leaves the future detective’s face horribly scarred. Later in a medical hospital, a lovely young nurse named Katherine (Susannah Fielding) pays him a visit. The two clearly have a connection, but he fears she’ll leave after seeing his face. “You’ll grow a mustache,” she says with a tender, heartfelt smile.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Bop ahead to 1937 London where the mustachioed Poirot sits in a night club soaking in the soulful tunes of jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Okonedo). His bright blue eyes scope out the patrons, noticing every detail and logging them in his mind. Lighting up the dance floor is the dashing Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and his beautiful fiancé, Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey). Minutes later, in walks Linnet Ridgeway (played with an ever-present sizzle by Gal Gadot), a wealthy heiress and Jacqueline’s close friend. Remember those names.

Six weeks later, Poirot is vacationing in Egypt, admiring the Great Sphinx of Giza from the shores of the River Nile. There he unexpectedly bumps into an old friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman) who’s in the area with his artist mother Euphemia (Annette Bening) to attend a wedding party at a posh 5-Star hotel. Poirot agrees to join them and several handpicked special guests at the obscenely lavish event where he meets the recently married couple of honor – Simon Doyle and ….. Linnet Ridgeway, NOT Jacqueline de Bellefort.

But as you might imagine, the embittered, scorned and slightly unhinged Jacqueline is not out of the picture. In fact, she’s been shadowing the newlyweds around the globe, popping up at every stop to stir up trouble. When she shows up at their shindig in Egypt, Simon and Linnet rent out a luxury riverboat, the SS Karnak, for them and their handful of guests. Linnet convinces Poirot to come as well, secretly sharing her distrust for her privileged party. “When you have money no one is ever really your friend,” she explains. “I don’t feel safe with any of them.”

The swanky vessel chugs up the Nile, eventually dropping anchor in front of the famed Abu Simbel shrine. The massive monument to King Ramesses II forms a picturesque background for the knotty story that unfolds. One that involves deception, betrayal, and course murder. With one dead body, Poirot sets out to find the killer before more meet the same fate. And you couldn’t ask for a better collection of suspects: the former classmate, the old flame, the accountant, the singer, the painter, the doctor, the maid, the godmother, and so on.

One of the trickiest parts of a movie like this is defining the suspects. You have to root out some kind of believable motive in each of them while also giving us reasons to believe them innocent. It also has to put us in a similar mindset as Poirot. We need to become detectives – watching, listening and soaking up the details. It then needs to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. One that connects the pieces and makes sense. While I was left with a couple of minor questions, “Death on the Nile” mostly accomplishes all of the above. I was engaged throughout.

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The ensemble cast is in fine form with a few notable standouts. Branagh is terrific in the lead, capturing Poirot’s steely professional ego but also his more closely guarded sensitivity. There’s an unexpectedly warm subtext found in Poirot’s hidden fascination with love and its many textures. It’s born out of his own personal sense of loss and adds an extra layer to the character which Branagh handles in just the right key.

I mentioned Gadot’s sizzle. We also get a wonderfully understated and nearly unrecognizable Russell Brand playing (I love this name) Linus Windlesham, Linnet’s former beau. Rose Leslie is really good as Linnet’s maid/gopher. I also like the sultry confidence and style Sophie Okonedo brings to Salome. Of course the distracting ickiness associated with Hammer’s casting is hard to avoid, but it wore off over time as the character took the place of the disgraced actor. Still, it’s an obstacle.

In a way, “Death on the Nile” feels like a relic from a bygone era which I found to be one of its most alluring traits. Branagh whole-heartedly embraces the style of the classic whodunnits which I loved but will certainly impact some of the critical reaction. I also loved the look of the film from how Branagh and his DP Haris Zamabarloukos shoot the characters to the outstanding use of the Egyptian setting. It may not have the most seamless conclusion, but it’s a satisfying one. And watching Branagh’s Poirot once again crack another case left me with a grin on my face and hope for a third adventure. “Death on the Nile” is out now in theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Delicious” (2021)

The French period drama “Delicious” is (pardon the corniness) a mouthwatering mix of character, country, and cuisine. Written and directed by Éric Besnard and featuring some of the most exquisite cinematography you’ll see, “Delicious” pulls from real history to help tell its largely fictional but utterly compelling story of France’s very first restaurant. At the time, Inns and lodges provided small meals for weary travelers, but the idea of a walk-in restaurant as we know it today didn’t yet exist.

The film is set in 1789 with France on the eve of a Revolution. It’s a time of growing unrest as commoners scrounge for food across the famine stricken countryside. Meanwhile France’s nobility fill their bellies with lavish, meticulously prepared gourmet meals, even using their gastronomical overindulgence as a symbol of power and to flaunt their status.

The film opens with one such extravagant meal being prepared. The camera and the sound design vividly captures the energy and bustle of chef Pierre Manceron’s kitchen. Pierre (a terrific Grégory Gadebois) is the personal chef to the haughty Duke of Chamfort (a wonderfully pompous Benjamin Laverhne). He and his team of cooks rush to put the finishing touches on a lavish dinner he’s preparing for the Duke and his blue-blooded guests.

After the meal Pierre is summoned to the dining area for “comments”. What follows is a scene that highlights both the absurdity as well as the hypocrisy of the aristocracy. At first Pierre is showered with compliments from the table. But then one particularly grumpy friar takes a shot at his lovingly manicured appetizer. “That is your only false note,” he grumbles. It immediately sets off a barrage of insults and ridicule from the very people who were just singing his praises. An embarrassed Duke demands his humiliated chef apologizes. When Pierre refuses, he is promptly fired.

With his Rousseau-quoting son Benjamin (Lorenzo Lefèbvre) in tow, a dejected Pierre retreats to a ramshackle old inn once ran by his late father. There he’s content with letting his dream die. “I’ve lost the taste for cooking,” laments the defeated master chef. Instead he fixes up and reopens the inn, providing a rest place for travelers to stop, stretch their legs, and feed their horses. And for those hungry, there’s no Duck à l’Orange, Braised Pork, or Boeuf Bourguignon. Nope, it’s lukewarm broth over a piece of bread. Bon appétit!

Soon after, a mysterious woman named Louise (Isabelle Carré) arrives on a passing stagecoach asking to be Pierre’s apprentice. “Sorry, I don’t cook anymore,” he grumbles. When she refuses to leave he tries discouraging her with his chauvinistic barbs. “Cuisine is a man’s affair,” he chides. “Women don’t understand it.” Yet Louise stays and over time not only earns Pierre’s trust, but inspires him to look beyond his own self-pity and vainglorious goals.

“Delicious” avoids any dewy-eyed and mawkish trappings by throwing us a few curveballs in its final act. They don’t exactly feel in tune with the rest of the story, but the twists (mild as they are) allow the film more time to dig into the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Food proves to be a good tool to do it. Where the Duke and his ilk arrogantly believe that “common people” aren’t capable of properly appreciating cuisine, Pierre and Louise set out to create a place where everyone, regardless of status, can enjoy the happiness and comfort of good dining.

Through it all DP Jean-Marie Dreujou’s breathtaking images go well beyond the sumptuous dishes. The rolling hills, the grassy meadows, the autumn colors – they are all shot with a painterly beauty and would make for a stunning coffee table book. And there are several visual tricks that really impress. Such as one scene where the camera sits outside of Pierre’s inn and we watch a seasonal transition sped up for affect. That sequence is a pure delight, as are several other memorable visual moments.

History says that the first restaurant was actually Le Grande Taverne des Londres which opened in Paris several years before “Delicious” takes place. While the movie creates its own fictionalized origin story, it feels so much a part of that era that you would never question its authenticity. There are some other touches that really enhance the story. For example, there’s a genuine warmth in watching Manceron and Louise inevitably grow closer. And with the French Revolution knocking on the door, having young Benjamin as the voice of the people reminds us that change is on the way. It will come at a sobering cost, but change is coming nonetheless. “Delicious” is now available in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Don’t Look Up” (2021)

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.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

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).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

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.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS