Not feeling stressed enough about life these days? Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up is here to change that. The director is back with another socially-charged comedy, designed to wring laughs from our deeply troubled environmental state.
The premise plays on the notion that disaster is often couched by the media and government, with a twist. Here, the United States turns its back on a deadly comet headed straight for our planet, just as our government did with COVID-19. McKay has all the ammo to make a Dr. Strangelove-level satire about COVID, climate change, Twitter, and the tendency for issues that have nothing to do with politics to become political, but instead, he’s made a mean-spirited, one-sided hit piece that’s about as subtle as that comet crashing into Earth.
Remember when McKay was making movies like Step Brothers? Now he’s making movies like Vice and Don’t Look Up, glib, unfunny infomercials that are closer to Ted Talks than Talladega Nights.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Kate Dibiasky, the scientist who first spots the comet; she and her mentor, Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), spring to action when they learn that it is headed straight for Earth and that it will bring an extinction-level catastrophe. They head to the White House, where their message is lost on a menagerie of buffoons, including General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle), who charges the astronomers for complimentary snacks, and President Orlean (Meryl Streep), who doesn’t want anything to do with science.
Things come to a head when they appear on a talk show. Randall is great on TV, but when Kate loses patience with the hosts (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett), she has a meltdown and screams, “We’re all going to die!” Then come the conspiracy theories, the riots, the Twitter threads, the Republicans who support Orlean and refuse to acknowledge scientific facts. For the majority of the film, we’re bouncing from one Republican caricature to the next. Streep is a female version of Donald Trump. Jonah Hill is a fratty version of Donald Trump Jr. Mark Rylance is a right-wing version of Tim Cook. And Ron Perlman is a red-eyed version of General Turgidson.
Kubrick’s Strangelove is a clear influence on McKay’s comedy, offering a dose of gallows humor, political caricature and government hypocrisy. He sets a grim tone for the satire, which is usually pretty tame and ranges anywhere from hilarious to stupid. On one end of the spectrum, the final scene is right up there with great Last Supper homages (MASH, Viridiana). On the other, the exceptionally gifted Streep is miscast and can’t even conjure a laugh.
The setting and content of Don’t Look Up are certainly hot-button issues. It’s not often that we see one of the world’s most beloved filmmakers tackle such controversial material. But Mckay, who wrote the screenplay as well, lets satire get in the way of social commentary. There’s something to be said for piercing reality with humor, rubbing our faces in horrible realities while confronting them with an amusing point-of-view. But the nastiness and negativity here just makes the filmmaker come off like a jerk. At the end of Don’t Look Up, you’re left feeling agitated and angry – not at Republicans, but at McKay for making such a dismal affair.