Don’t Look Up is now streaming on Netflix.
By Palmer Rubin
A graduate student discovers a comet, and quickly goes on to realize it’s going to render life on Earth extinct in six months and fourteen days. She and her professor do everything in their power to try and warn humanity, having to contend with an increasing wave of “comet denial” and the potential collapse of society around them. It’s been a while since a film tried to play in the Dr. Strangelove ballpark, though now the issue is about climate change rather than thermonuclear warfare. The stakes remain the same, of course: the extinction of humanity brought about by corporations and capitalism. Of course, an issue that quickly emerges is that the brave soul who has tried to modernize that older story is the same guy who made Talladega Nights.
Now, to be fair, Adam McKay has seen a shift in his career over the last few years. He won an Oscar for The Big Short, which documents the Great Recession, and Vice, a mostly fabricated portrait of former Vice President Dick Cheney. McKay is a director constantly at crisis with himself. He seems genuinely ashamed of the comedic films he made before the last five years (most articles about him to try portray movies like Anchorman and Step Brothers as satire, and…no they’re not), even if most of them had some inspiration from the chauvinistic bravado and stupidity of the Bush administration. His heroes were misogynist news anchors and misogynist NASCAR drivers and misogynist step brothers and misogynist cops, often reflecting the very worst of America. Pretty much all of them seemed to have a pathological fear of the feminine and queer (Ricky Bobby devolves into rage upon discovering that his newest rival is a gay effete Frenchman, after all), and McKay absolutely had some axes to grind against various types of people. The issue is that McKay’s biggest fans were the exact same people he was trying to insult, who either didn’t get it or thought he was endorsing them. As that one meme says, “satire requires a clarity of purpose and target lest it be mistaken for and contribute to that which it intends to criticize.” He had the purpose and the target but no clarity, so retroactively claiming them as secret satirical masterpieces rather than pretty funny but badly aged comedies feels…wrong.
Point being, McKay seems to visibly feel some kind of shame towards the genre that made him a household name. He’s a series of contradictions: his three most recent films show a righteous fury towards people in positions of power, but they all come to the conclusion that the systems that created them are basically good. All three have extremely ambitious points they want to make, yet all three feel extremely scattershot and unfocused for the most part. His instincts as a comedian (let Will Ferrell run around in his underwear, pause for laugh, repeat) collide with his ambitions as a Serious Filmmaker, and all of those things implode on impact with what is both his best and worst work all at the same time.
That most closely tracks with what Leonardo DiCaprio is doing, which is a hypothetical where he tries to imitate what would normally be a part written for Will Ferrell. DiCaprio’s casting feels like partial spite after part of the film’s marketing campaign involved McKay and Ferrell’s very public falling out, which is a strange angle to take when trying to promote a film like this one. To summarize: McKay had cast Ferrell in an upcoming HBO show about the Los Angeles Lakers (yawn) and had recast him without telling him. It was a dick move, McKay fully admitted to this, both exploded at each other over the press, and now that story seems to have more traction than the movie itself. It has next to nothing to do with this, other than DiCaprio’s Ferrell impression is both impressive and kind of cringey at the same time. He’s playing a Ferrell character: an emotionally stunted man-child who inexplicably turns tragedy into success despite his lack of discernible talent. That’s contrasted with him also being a brilliant astronomer who is Jennifer Lawrence’s professor as she discovers the comet that will end humanity for good. It’s good, then, that DiCaprio is paired up with Lawrence, who is so good she almost makes up for this film being as inconsistent as it is. It’s the kind of part she’s already known to be good at: well-meaning and idealistic but also furious at authority, having to walk that tightrope. A film almost entirely about misinformation campaigns going after her for being the modern equivalent of Cassandra feels almost like the same media campaigns that cast her as a cold and unfeeling shrew. Lawrence has got her own axes to grind, after years of manufactured controversy and being drowned alive in franchise bloat. It’s a really meta role for her to play, the victim of a public shaming campaign, and she’s electrifying here.
As for the rest of the cast, people who are far too famous to be normally taking what amount to extended cameos, that’s inconsistency across the board. Don’t Look Up isn’t just a modern attempt at Dr. Strangelove, but a million other things: a diatribe against Millennials and Gen Z and how stupid and vapid they all are, a diatribe about how Things Were Better In The Past, a political satire, a criticism of celebrity culture with the most famous people on the planet delivering the message. The film often disengages entirely from the comet and instead displays a variety of imagined social media campaigns (McKay clearly watched the Ice Bucket Challenge as he was writing this). The dialogue is sprinkled with hashtags like there’s no tomorrow, as if that’ll get the approval of The Youths and their Fortnites for sure that way. The American public responds to a rocket launch attempting to destroy the comet by letting fireworks explode in their faces, a mass of Facebook posts (McKay seems to not realize that other social media sites even exist), and those bits all feel like a grandfather telling the kids to get off his damn lawn. Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi have brief cameos as obvious parodies of themselves in a fictional relationship with one another, except Kid Cudi is also sort-of playing an analogue of Grande’s real-life ex Pete Davidson? Why there’s an entire subplot involving the two of them seems hard to explain, especially since they’re constantly mentioned despite only appearing for about five minutes total. They also have a tie-in song that’s supposed to be the 2020s version of “We Are The World” that’s both meant to be cringey within the film but also an IRL ploy for Oscar nominations? Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry are also there in a news show that’s supposed to be if Ben Shapiro hosted The View, and it’s just there so DiCaprio can give an attempt at a monologue inspired by Network. It’s his “we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” moment, but it’s so overburdened with subplot after subplot that hasn’t resolved that it ends up falling entirely flat, both in the movie and how audiences have reacted to it. The film both tries to latch on to these moments of sincerity and then downplays it whenever it needs to.
This lack of focus is everywhere, and it results in a 90-minute masterpiece hidden inside of almost two and a half hours of bloat. There are some genuinely hysterical moments that are funnier than anything McKay has ever done in his career. Jonah Hill, surprisingly, fully uses his douchebag persona as the president’s chief of staff (and biological son) when he offers a prayer during a press conference for all the material goods he hopes will survive the comet’s potential impact. Lawrence herself has already got great comedic timing, and a running gag where she tries to figure out why she was mistakenly charged for food at the White House is far funnier than it has any right to be. But easily the biggest surprise is Timothee Chalamet, who plays what can only be described as an “evangelical Twitch streamer.” It is the one time McKay’s lack of understanding of technology works to his advantage, where Chalamet repeatedly tries to promote his Twitch stream to people far too old to know what he’s talking about. He’s a goddamn revelation here, despite only being on screen for a few minutes. Does he begin praying before sex? Yes he does. Every moment with him is a delight. I already knew he was a talented guy, but he is not being utilized right.
But in spite of all of that, there’s still the million tangents and the million contradictions. McKay still has this fundamental confusion as to why our nation is as divided as it is, why there’s so much denial of scientific fact, and so much barely restrained malice towards people younger than himself. All of that constantly works against him, even when he’s got genuinely great ideas and executions in some places. There’s a mid-credit scene in Vice where a bunch of people in a focus group review the movie they just watched, and the punchline is that people below the age of thirty are too stupid to understand what the movie was about. On the one hand, Lawrence herself is only 31 and playing several years younger, and portrayed as the Only Smart Young Person in this film. On the other, there’s sort of the strange implication that maybe America does deserve to die if its young people are so dumb. On the other hand, it’s the obvious malevolence of Meryl Streep’s Sarah Palin impression that will decide whether or not the comet will hit. It starts with a relatively strong first several minutes and has a much stronger coast to the finish line, but that bloated middle is what’s ultimately going to turn a lot of people off. It’s unclear why so many famous people wanted to take such tiny parts for a film that ultimately isn’t even going to have the impact it wanted. Yes, climate change denial is an incredibly dangerous thing, yes, something ought to be done about it. Yes, that something can only be done by institutions of power with the means to do something about it. Yes, discovering a life-ending comet would result in something largely like this.
A film just about the comet itself, with the execution in those particular sequences, that still features a lot of genuinely funny performances, would’ve been the slam-dunk McKay was looking for. It fully proves he has the ability to make a truly great comedy in him. I would argue that all of those years around Will Ferrell really worked against him in the end. Remove the social media diatribes, remove the tangents, remove the long grating mess of a musical number (which I don’t blame Kid Cudi or Ariana Grande for, both have done far better than this), have some kind of focus. It can be just about the comet, and how these people are reacting to it, and what would you do if the world could possibly end sooner than it currently is. There’s a lot of obvious despair McKay feels from his ivory tower, that even with all his influence, there’s still very little he can do for what feels like impending doom all around. That he has so much trouble connecting the rage with the dark humor of it all feels more sad than anything else. Part of what makes Dr. Strangelove both so funny and so morbid is that it waits quite a while to play its hand, it uses expectations of decorum and civility against its characters and against the audience. To spoil it, a single power-hungry man begins the apocalypse because he’s got erectile dysfunction and concludes that it somehow must be the fault of the communists. The entire film makes a direct thematic link between sex and the literal end of the world, and Don’t Look Up really needed a primal hook like that to become the modern equivalent of it. Maybe setting the film from the perspective of its most seemingly heroic works against it, in that way. Who knows. I am both immensely fascinated and frustrated by this film. Adam McKay can do far better, and he’s got the institutional power to do far better. Let’s hope he does so next time.
I give Don’t Look Up a C+.