Reel Review - Don't Look Up (2021)
Title: Don’t Look Up
Directed by: Adam McKay
Written by: Adam McKay
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio & Jennifer Lawrence with Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, Cate Blanchett & Meryl Streep
Produced by: Adam McKay & Keven J. Messick
Don’t look up. Or do. It doesn’t really matter. Either way, a giant flaming ball of Hollywood self-righteousness is going to kill us all.
In Adam McKay’s 2021 film, Don’t Look Up, two astronomers try to warn an apathetic world that a planet-killing, civilization-ending meteor is headed straight for Earth.
Don’t Look Up is supposed to be a satire but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to be satirical. This isn’t necessarily McKay’s fault—we live in a world that is, already, more farcical than factual. A reality TV star was president of the United States—and he wasn’t actually half bad at it. A reanimated corpse replaced the reality TV star as president of the United States and we called that “going back to normal”. In Canada, we’ve had a drama-teacher-cum-drama-queen as prime minister for the better part of a decade but, at least for the past two years, we’ve all been too busy masking in a self-congratulatory, virtue-signalling circle jerk to care.
To my drive point home, I suppose what I’m saying is that we live in a very unserious world. That’s not exactly fertile ground for a satirist—even one as gifted as McKay. It’s not easy to make fun of a world that is already making fun of itself. Nevertheless, even though McKay is way off of his best—Don’t Look Up is nowhere near the sleek-brilliance of The Big Short or the hearty humour of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy—he does manage to do a few things really well.
McKay quite perfectly captures Western liberal democracies’ political retardation in the face of potentially civilization-ending crises—whether it’s climate change, global pandemics or megalomaniacal dweebs with more money than Christ. McKay also makes a stunning spectacle—with just a few throw-away lines and some clever writing—of the unserious state of our “news” media. In particular, McKay used Cate Blanchett’s and Himesh Patel’s characters—two self-obsessed and self-satisfied would-be journalists—to display the kind of moral corruption that has, with rabidity, eaten away at the once-respected institution of American journalism.
McKay’s least contrived jokes provide the most laughs—or enthusiastic chuckles—throughout the film but it’s kind of hard to wait for them between all of the moralizing. It’s very—plainly, painfully, patently—obvious that Don’t Look Up is a satire on what McKay and his cabal of Hollywood do-gooders perceive to be our society’s inadequate response to climate change. In his allegory, McKay is about as subtle as, well… a planet-killing, civilization-ending meteor headed straight for Earth.
For those on the “right” of the political spectrum or for those denying climate change in whole or in part—these are, increasingly, not the same people—it would be easy to dismiss Don’t Look Up as more liberal-elite, Hollywood drivel in the same vein as 2019’s The Laundromat or 2018’s Vice. Indeed, McKay himself gave birth to the popularity of these “dramatized mockumentary satire” films after the success of and universal acclaim for The Big Short. But Don’t Look Up tries, as well as it can, to not ostracize the half of the United States population it is trying to—or should be trying to—win over.
In the film’s first two acts, McKay pokes fun at the liberal and coastal elites just as much as he does at middle America. Meryl Streep’s character takes a pointed jab at the fool’s paradise parade of a media celebration following Donald Trump’s ouster in the 2020 election with the ironic one-liner, “We’re the adults.” But by the time the third act rolls around, McKay makes it clear that he’s not interested in making nice anymore and goes after his perception of “MAGA country” in truly shameful manner. Down to the hats. It’s a lost opportunity for McKay and for the rest of his A-list cast to do what, ostensibly, part of their mission might have been: to reach across the divide and share something real with someone real.
Nevertheless, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are more than capable of saving McKay from himself. DiCaprio, in particular, brings a great deal of humanity to the screen. In fact, at times, you wouldn’t be sad about this fictional earth’s impending doom if it wasn’t for DiCaprio—such is the society’s unlikability and DiCaprio’s unfailing charisma. His unscripted and touching line, “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” just about saves McKay’s heavy-handedness from running roughshod over the entire film.
Lawrence is charming and funny and funnily charming even if her character never quite had the room to grow. It would have been nice—and appropriate—to see her character find the fucks she doesn’t give before the world exploded and launched them into outer space. The late-in-the-script introduction of Timothée Chalamet’s character seemed intended to do just that until it went exactly nowhere.
As you would expect from heavy-hitters taking on supporting roles, most of the laughs and farcical fun comes from the likes of Blanchett, Streep, Ron Perlman and Mark Rylance. To push this film’s fame-o-metre into the red, Ariana Grande plays an air-headed singer/celebrity and delivers two of the film’s funniest lines—one of which, apparently, she improvised.
Don’t Look Up racked up four nominations at the Golden Globes and will likely get more at the Academy Awards—Meryl Streep is, after all, in the movie. But whatever accolades it gets won’t be for editing and really shouldn’t be for directing. For the first time, McKay’s comedic timing is almost painfully off. We lose at least a handful of jokes to a questionable editing style and an inexplicable overuse of National Geographic’s B-roll.
Trying to ignore the film’s intended purpose—more hypocritical climate alarmism from Hollywood—to enjoy some half-hearted laughs with familiar faces might be asking some audiences for too much. Try as it might to mend fences, Don’t Look Up is a sermon for the “saved” and a slap in the face for everyone else. Nevertheless, for audiences who can stomach being the butt of yet another Hollywood joke, there’s actually quite a bit of smart and funny social commentary.
So, if you can squint past the blinding glare of so much self-righteousness, you can, safely, look up.