Review: Don’t Look Up — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Director Adam McKay takes on so many targets that Don’t Look Up fails to find the laser focus it seeks. But you can’t completely ruin a great concept, and McKay has hit on one.

Scene from Don't Look Up
(Netflix)

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Don’t Look Up

⭐⭐⭐

Rating: R

Run Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance

Writer/Director: Adam McKay (Story by David Sirota)

In Theaters and on Netflix

 

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that Don’t Look Up, the new pitch-dark comedy by Adam McKay, is making some people positively furious. Critics don’t seem content to merely pan what is admittedly an overlong and overwrought commentary on the state of the world — they’re condemning the film as “unwatchable,” “unfunny,” and “slapdash.”

Yes, this two-hour-plus, star-studded satire would have worked better as a Saturday Night Live skit. And yes, McKay takes on so many targets — impotent government, all-powerful tech moguls, cable news, Internet influencers, and us-versus-them political groups just for starters — that the film fails to find the laser focus it seeks.

But you can’t completely ruin a great concept, and McKay has hit on one: Noted astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, scraggly and just a little lumpy) and his doctoral candidate assistant Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, hair dyed red and sporting a nose ring) have discovered an extinction-level comet headed straight for Earth. Together, they try to alert the world to the crisis, only to discover that no one — from a pair of happy-talk TV hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) all the way up to the President (Meryl Streep) — is particularly interested.

The problem is, this whole killer comet scenario doesn’t fit with anyone’s current narrative. TV hosts just want to keep things light. The President is focused on getting her Supreme Court nominee — a former soft-core porn star — through Congress. The Pentagon would rather deal with some tension in the Philippines.

Not until everyone else involved finds a way to use the comet to their own advantage do the scientists begin to break through with their urgent message. Even then, it might be too late — especially when an eccentric Silicon Valley trillionaire (Mark Rylance, channeling Bill Gates, Elon Musk and, perhaps, a touch of Andy Warhol) steps forward with a plan to actually let the comet hit earth…so he can mine the valuable minerals inside it.

It’s a sure bet that McKay had Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove playing on a loop — at least in his head — as he formulated Don’t Look Up. Besides employing a doomsday premise and a densely populated big-name cast, like Kubrick, McKay peppers his yarn with whimsically named characters: Paul Guilfoyle’s military leader is named General Themes, and the phonetic French translation of Blanchett’s procatively dressed TV host, Brie Evantee, is “front breakage.”

Kubrick, however, had just one victim to flog: the insanity of nuclear war. McKay, perhaps fearing he’ll never live long enough to make dozens of movies about the scores of issues stuck in his sizable craw, attempts to dispatch all of them at once. It reminds me of Robert Redford and Paul Newman at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, running wild, firing their pistols in all directions, trying to take out the Bolivian Army.

Ultimately, McKay is defeated by his enemies, but not before he lands some pretty substantial punches — especially toward the finale, when the U.S. divides into two camps: comet alarmists and comet deniers. Indeed, the name of the film becomes the battle cry of the millions who don’t only disbelieve the comet is coming; they refuse, as a matter of pride, to even glance skyward to see if their position has any place in reality. Social satire doesn’t get much richer — or pointed — than that.

And there’s no denying the cast’s steadfast devotion to the project. As the President, Streep bellows and threatens, mews and sweet-talks. Jonah Hill’s familiar disingenuous S.O.B. persona is a perfect fit for the President’s son Jason, an out-of-his-league White House chief of staff. Blanchett and Perry should probably get their own real-life morning talk show, and teen queen Ariana Grande brings authentic glitz to a fictional version of herself: a self-absorbed superstar who sees the comet as little more than an opportunity to compose and perform her own “We Are the World”-type anthem.

Then there’s Rylance, absolutely terrific as the monomaniacal Peter Isherwell, a whiny savant who upends the world’s best chance at diverting the comet with his own longshot scheme. Isherwell, as cleverly written by McKay, isn’t your standard issue movie villain, awash in greed, obsessed with power. Profoundly introverted, seemingly always in conversation with only himself, he’s a true believer in salvation through technology, the more arcane the better. When it fails, there’s always Plan B, then Plan C. Trouble is, there are only 26 letters in the alphabet.

So, why is there so much hating on Don’t Look Up? I suspect an awful lot of critics consider the issues McKay addresses as too important to share billing with each other; that the film is a missed opportunity to resoundingly sound the alarm about climate change, or political division, or science denial — ironically because it does all that and at the same time none of it.

Ultimately, Don’t Look Up is less a direct hit, in the vein of Dr. Strangelove, than a chaotic splatter, like Otto Preminger’s 1968 psychedelic fiasco Skidoo, which also set out to skewer social mores with an outrageous script and gargantuan cast ranging from Jackie Gleason to Groucho Marx to Frankie Avalon.

This is the way the world ends; not with a bang, but a bluster.

Featured image: Netflix

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Comments

  1. Talk about irony. That so many reviewers don’t understand what this film is about makes its point.

    “I suspect an awful lot of critics consider the issues McKay addresses as too important to share billing with each other; that the film is a missed opportunity to resoundingly sound the alarm about climate change, or political division, or science denial — ironically because it does all that and at the same time none of it.”

    That makes no sense at all … as if those were three unrelated things! The political division (which in the U.S. is entirely due to the utterly corrupt GOP) fueled by corporate greed produces the denial that results in not having addressed Anthropogenic Global Warming–which is an existential threat. (Rapid and extreme climate change is the result, just as the shock waves and the coming darkening of the skies is caused by the oncoming comet.)

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