Don’t Look Up is Adam McKay’s latest po-faced, celebrity-stuffed foray into unfunny finger-wagging and condescension.
There’s a curious combativeness to the recent works of Adam McKay, once a Hollywood funny man (SNL‘s writer’s room plus various Will Ferrell projects) now a Hollywood scold. His two most recent features — The Big Short and Vice — bear a strange contempt, not only for their worthy, stated targets, but also for their audiences. That former, 2015 film sought to educate the public on the mechanics of the 2008 American housing bubble crisis with a series of demoralizing celeb-fronted skits (Margot Robbie talking down at us from a lavish bathtub) that, unsurprisingly, failed to make much cultural impact outside of a Best Adapted Screenplay win. 2018’s Vice was, accordingly, a petulant effort, lashing out at its audience from the opening moments (a “Based on a true story” title card that concludes with a preemptive “We did our fucking best”) and out past the credits (a taunting stinger depicting a focus group unable to objectively assess the film, distracted by culture wars nonsense and Fast and the Furious movies), suggesting a filmmaker in crisis, clueless as to why his star-powered docufiction essay film didn’t inspire real world political movement.
Now, three years later, McKay makes his return to cinemas (and then Netflix a couple weeks later) with Don’t Look Up, seemingly having burrowed deeper into the blinkered philosophy of his last two films, once more casting himself as put-upon educator and the audience as guileless children. This time around, he’s enlisted an abundance of Oscar winners and nominees to help us learn what’s good for us, bringing in the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Timothée Chalamet, etc. for a big (but not so grand) Hollywood production that warns of the U.S. government’s inevitable incompetency and complicity in the face of global annihilation. In this case, a massive comet on course to collide with Earth, its impact capable of kicking off an extinction-level event (title cards assure us that this is a very real and probable danger we should anticipate), though of course this could all be prevented were it not for the dense bureaucracy governing us and elected officials’ shortsighted obsession with wealth and optics.
These ideas all play out in the form of a (very) loose satire with DiCaprio and Lawrence as a pair of Michigan State astronomers who discover the comet’s looming threat and then spend the first half of the film trying to get the Oval Office (Streep as a Hillary Clinton/Trump amalgamation, Jonah Hill as snotty millennial chief of staff) and cable news (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as co-hosts of a CNN-type show; one of the few inspired casting choices made) to take this matter seriously. The second half hinges on a pseudo-twist instigated by big tech (represented here by Mark Rylance doing a David Byrne impression) and a half-baked Capra-esque arc for DiCaprio’s dopey astronomer geek who gets consumed by the DC media machine before eventually redeeming himself by organizing an Ariana Grande concert (technically playing a cruel caricature of herself, no clue why she took this role). McKay seems to understand that the idea of using celebrity to instigate direct political action is a nonstarter, and yet Don’t Look Up’s thesis seems to be that it’s the best tool we’ve got (at the end of the Grande concert DiCaprio solemnly intones “Well at least we know we did everything we could,” the movie’s only laugh-out-loud moment). Free of any actual jokes but packed with performances desperate to convince you that these actors were having fun, Don’t Look Up scans as a vanity project for all involved, an empty gesture (saddled with plenty of finger-wagging) from McKay and his cast that sort of seems significant only if you glance quickly.
You can currently catch Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up in theaters or streaming on Netflix beginning on December 24.