Writer/director Adam McKay is a lot of things, but subtle isn’t one of them. Most of the time, he’s found ways to turn that to his advantage, with broader comedies like the two Anchorman movies and The Other Guys, as well as more serious fare like The Big Short and Vice, both of which he mined for comedic nuggets even when the subject matter didn’t seem to possess any. His latest star-studded outing, Don’t Look Up, tackles another somewhat serious subject: the end of the world via a planet-killing comet. But this apocalyptic event is really just the backdrop for a satire about the politicization of science and facts, which are often the first victims when what they’re telling us threatens the power structure or defies religious beliefs. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Said to be based on actual events (to a point, obviously), Don’t Look Up features characters who are clearly based on real people, and others who are fictional or composite creations. Either way, the film is a fascinating teardown of the Trump administration and its clear defiance of scientific evidence, because gut feelings of what felt right and wrong often outweighed numbers and research. People with educations and degrees were looked upon as the enemy, and as a result, a global health emergency continues to this day. McKay swaps out a medical crisis for one that originates in space, where astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover a comet on the outskirts of the solar system making a direct line for Earth.
With the help of Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the pair get a brief audience with an indifferent President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her chief of staff party boy son, Jason (Jonah Hill), who are preoccupied with other crises (including a poor choice in a new Supreme Court Justice) and don’t have time to be bothered with another possible disaster scenario—which is actually 100 percent going to happen in about six months. The scientists also go on a media tour, where they have somewhat more success, especially after an appearance on The Daily Rip, a popular bubbly morning show hosted by Jack (Tyler Perry) and Brie (Cate Blanchett). Dr. Mindy comes across as calm and even-tempered, earning him the title of “sexy doctor,” while Kate loses her shit on television and storms off the set when she realizes the sickeningly positive hosts aren’t taking them seriously.
Almost as soon as the world begins to understand the nature and severity of the situation, rather than coming together to save the Earth, factions form, divided over everything from whether this comet is real or whether it will actually hit the planet to the many ways in which the crisis can be averted. When the President is finally convinced this is a problem not only worth paying attention to but that it would help her image if she rescues the Earth, she is influenced mid-mission by tech giant Peter Isherwell (the brilliantly quirky Mark Rylance), who is convinced that his company’s tech can solve the problem better than the one created by a legion of independent scientists.
As if the assured destruction of the planet weren’t enough, both Kate and Dr. Mindy are going through issues in their personal lives as a result of their increasing celebrity. Mindy begins an unwise affair with Brie. He’s swept up in her glamor, and she’s impressed by the size of his brain and how popular he is in that moment. And none of this sits well with Mindy’s supportive wife June (Melanie Lynskey). Meanwhile, Kate gets involved with a Gen Z skater douche named Yule (Timothée Chalamet), who occasionally shows signs of depth, only to have them vanish just as Kate is starting to fall for him.
The biggest issue with Don’t Look Up (the title is taken from the campaign slogan Orlean adopts to convince her followers that the comet doesn’t exist) is its ever-fluctuating tone. Normally, I love a film that isn’t afraid to change its tone midstream just to throw the viewer off and offer up a few surprises. But with this film, it feels more like McKay can’t decide what tone he wants, even within a single sequence. There are moments of pure, finely crafted satire, where the differences between our world and the world of this comet are indistinguishable. Then there are other sequences that are overplayed, unbelievable, and too jokey, the end result being that the harder the film tries to be funny, the less funny it becomes. When it plays its doomsday scenario straight, it succeeds masterfully.
DiCaprio and Lawrence are two fantastic actors, perfect for these roles, especially when playing the anxiety and panic involved not just in knowing the truth but also in watching those around them dismiss them because they aren’t known quantities or because the timing of this news doesn’t fit in with political agendas. The film should be a complete condemnation not just of American politics but of the current state of America as a whole, but by allowing Streep and Hill to go so broad, it undercuts the comedy and the message. There’s a running joke through the film about Kate obsessing over a military general who charged her and Dr. Mindy for snacks at the White House when they should have been free. That feels like something real and exactly the kind of petty bullshit people allow to distract them from the bigger picture; it’s also one of the funniest things in the movie because it feels genuine.
Don’t Look Up has moments that help to serve the great themes, but they are almost always countered by silliness, which certainly has its place in the cinematic world but doesn’t serve to elevate this film at all. It’s a closer call than I’m probably making it seem, but with a cast like this, your expectations are expectedly higher. Some of the players rise to the occasion, others do not, but in the end the movie’s faults sit with McKay’s screenplay, which doesn’t have the necessary heft and guts it needs, and frankly, we need right now.
The film opens in select theaters on Friday, Dec. 10, and begins streaming Dec. 24 on Netflix.
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