Humans are stupid and can’t be expected to agree on anything, even if their existence depends on it. That’s the “hilarious” insight Adam McKay wants to impart with “Don’t Look Up,” a smug, easy-target political satire in which two earnest astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) have one hell of a time trying to convince an attention-deficit president (Meryl Streep, clearly having more fun than we are) or bobblehead media (repped by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) that there’s a comet hurtling toward Earth.
“Keep it light, fun.” That’s the advice a cable talk-show producer gives “the sky is falling” scientists Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio, looking dweeby) and Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence, sporting a nose ring and hair the color of red velvet cake) when the pair appear on “The Daily Rip” to share the news with the masses. Except the sky is falling, and these two can’t get anyone to take them seriously. They’ve already been to the White House, where Streep’s Trump-like President Orlean (also the name of her “Adaptation” character) and her bratty chief of staff/son (Jonah Hill in his single most obnoxious role) were too busy damage-controlling a ratings disaster to deal with a potential extinction event.
Rather than “sit tight and assess,” as the administration recommends, the scientists — along with rational-minded Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) from the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (evidently a real place) — decide to leak the news on an insipid but popular “Good Morning America”-style talk show. Dr. Mindy does well on TV, adapting to the hosts’ brainless banter, but Dibiasky can’t deal, snapping, “Well, maybe the discussion of the planet isn’t supposed to be fun! Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying. And unsettling … when we’re all 100% for sure gonna fucking die!”
Shrill and self-righteous though it can be, this starry comedy is McKay’s way of raising the alarm on global warming, an issue that DiCaprio and no less a figure than ex-veep Al Gore have struggled to turn into compelling cinema. Since the ice caps aren’t melting fast enough (for eco-thriller purposes, at least), McKay invents a threat with a six-month deadline to impact, the assumption being that collapsing the time frame for survival would surely — or at least should — light a fire under people’s butts.
Without spoiling just how gonzo things get, such an ultra-cynical scenario can end one of three ways: (1) with the doomsday nerds being proven wrong, (2) with the nincompoop president somehow managing to save the day or (3) with the whole effing planet being obliterated so McKay can “prove” his point. As executed, “Don’t Look Up” plays like the leftie answer to “Armageddon” — which is to say, it ditches the Bruckheimer approach of assembling a bunch of blue-collar heroes to rocket out to space and nuke the approaching comet, opting instead to spotlight the apathy, incompetence and financial self-interest of all involved (including Mark Rylance’s Sir Peter Isherwell, an extreme Asperger’s case — and campaign mega-donor — who combines elements of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Richard Branson to uniquely irritating effect).
“Don’t Look Up” is the latest in McKay’s streak of liberal-leaning current-affairs critiques, and it boasts many of the same strengths as “Vice” and “The Big Short” before it: topicality and a gift for translating complex ideas into glib comic situations on one hand, spastic pacing and an unwieldy mix of acting styles on the other. After a series of more-fun Will Ferrell collaborations (namely “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights”), the writer-director got serious — in terms of his underlying content, at least — with 2015’s best picture-nominated “The Big Short,” a clever if exhausting breakdown of the financial crisis that set McKay on a path of increasingly punchy, stick-it-to-the-man movies. But unless you’re Roland Emmerich, global warming is a tricky concept to dramatize, and McKay can’t decide whether he wants to amuse or upset us … so why not both?
An exaggerated caricature of the family members who make up Trump’s inner circle, Jonah Hill is there merely to get laughs, delivering lines like “I can’t think of another president that I’d ever wanna see in Playboy” about his mom. But what is going on in the throwaway scene where Lawrence’s Chicken Little character suffers a mini-meltdown, pointing around the room and screaming, “You’re going to die! And you’re going to die!” in all directions? Getting the laugh is obviously editor Hank Corwin’s first priority, but often enough, it comes at the price of a kind of formal anarchy (cutting to hi-def shots of bees and CG renderings of outer space).
The plot of “Don’t Look Up” is intricate enough that McKay would have done well to rein in the improv, rather than letting everyone “American Hustle” their way through scenes (only Lawrence emerges unscathed, but then, she had “American Hustle” to practice). The director seems to be aiming for “Dr. Strangelove”-level lunacy, when we probably would’ve settled for “Wag the Dog,” which similarly skewered politics through the lens of showbiz, or “Idiocracy,” the film this one most resembles.
The characters have a relatively tight schedule to save Earth, but it’s virtually impossible to tell what (much less how much time) has transpired between scenes, as Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky’s private lives lurch forward without explanation. At one point, we find her working in a BevMo-style liquor store and falling in love with a stoned skater (Timothée Chalamet, wasted, and also wasted). But wasn’t she a grad student with a quasi-reporter boyfriend when the movie began? So how’d she get here?
Had the movie come out in 2019, I probably would’ve gone along with its overall premise — that, when faced with an extinction-level emergency, our species is not equipped to come together and problem-solve. But I need not remind you that we’ve collectively spent the past two years dealing with another disaster, COVID-19, and though the situation has devolved into a lot of the behavior McKay depicts (enriching billionaires, denying science), the pandemic also showed humanity’s capacity to focus on a common goal, to develop a vaccine in record time and to message a potentially lifesaving mask policy on a global scale.
So maybe we’re not as hopeless as McKay implies, even if a few of the movie’s jokes are dead-on sendups of stunts we’ve witnessed in recent politics. The movie’s title, for example, alludes to the ostrich-minded among us — those whose strategy for ignoring the growing fireball in the sky is simply “don’t look up.” And then there’s the vapid pop star (Arianna Grande) who turns her attention from saving the manatees to the film’s funniest gag, dropping a song called “Just Look Up.” Unless you hate the characters as much as I do, in which case, stick around through the credits for two bonus epilogues, which appear right around the point Netflix auto-directs you to the “Tiger King” sequel, or something else that makes you wish an asteroid would just wipe us all out already. You know what they say about cockroaches’ capacity to survive the end of the world, right?
Comet denial isn’t the same thing as climate-change skepticism, obviously, but once we do acknowledge the problem, we can probably all agree that a Jobs-Musk-Branson billionaire isn’t the person to fix it (or in this case, to mine the comet for precious resources rather than destroying it). McKay’s tone may be grating, even if you don’t have to look far to see some version of what he’s ranting about in the real world. That makes “Don’t Look Up” a different kind of disaster movie, where the threat isn’t what’s to come so much as the state of affairs as they now stand.