Honestly, the world needs more angry comedies. Great filmmakers once made scathing satires about how the world is inherently broken, and there’s not much to be done in order to fix it. Films like Dr. Strangelove, and Citizen Kane, and Network, and beyond (and before you ask, all three of those are comedies). But recently? Everything’s been so toothless, mindlessly handing its “commentary” over to the audience, usually telling them that there’s one easily solvable issue or villain that needs to be dealt with, and then everything’s fine. Adam McKay, the famous comedian-turned-political satirist who won an Oscar for The Big Short, seems to be aware of this problem, and his Christmas gift to audiences this year is Don’t Look Up, an angry, scathing indictment of the whole damn system. And while it runs too long and runs the risk of occasionally being too obvious, there is enough heart and intelligence to elevate the doomsday comedy just enough to warrant viewing.
While working at their laboratories at Michigan State University, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his doctorial student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) make a horrifying discovery: a massive comet is on a collision course with Earth. Should it make contact, it will exterminate all life as we know it. Desperate to avoid this terrible fate, the duo immediately heads to the White House, only to discover the beleaguered and fame-hungry President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her Chief of Staff son Jason (Jonah Hill) are more interested with approval ratings and the midterms than they are with the right thing. They soon turn to the media, only to discover the vapid talk show hosts are more interested in ratings and distractions than they are with saving lives. And things don’t get easier once billionaire tech CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) discovers the comet has the potential to make them all rich, and asks Dr. Mindy to fund his disinformation campaign. With the powers-that-be blocking them at every turn and society neutered of its ability to think logically, can Dr. Mindy and Kate save the day without losing their souls, their minds, and the planet itself?
Look, reading that description, it’s pretty clear that McKay’s not trying to do anything too subtle. The film is about the realities of living in the era of disinformation, where corporate elites control everything from politics to the media to our ability to function as a society, and how their control will bring about our imminent end in order to make a quick buck. Obviously this is meant to be a metaphor for climate change and the way a handful of oil barons have managed to successfully poison the well of information to the point that 40% of Americans don’t even believe scientists anymore. And it is abundantly clear that McKay rewrote his script during the pandemic as certain politicians spent their time covering up their failures as opposed to keeping us safe. The analogies here are so broad they might as well be beating you over the head with a stick. But what’s wrong with that? Dr. Strangelove was abundantly clear that war-mongering militarists would take advantage of effete, drunken leaders to bring about the end of the world. And much in the same way that Strangelove deconstructed these themes with the then-popular nuclear war thriller, so too is McKay deconstructing our beloved end-of-the-world thriller. We’d like to mythologize that we’d come together, Michael Bay style, to save the day. But as we’ve seen in the last several years, this is painfully optimistic. And worst of all, there’s not even an evil shadowy figure to blame. As Kate laments late in the film’s runtime, “They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you give them credit for.”
The humor and pathos in McKay’s vision comes from Randall and Kate’s odyssey, as they are confronted at every turn with a new complication that will doom the planet. There’s a President so focused on approval ratings and frequent scandals she refuses to even try to fix things (credit to McKay’s vision that for most of the runtime, she could just as easily be interchanged with Trump or Hillary or Biden or DeSantis just as easily), leaving most of the grunt work to her idiot failson Chief-of-Staff Jason. The media is divided between celebrity distractions and outright lies to protect their rich friends in power – whether it’s Tyler Perry as a cross between Joe Scarborough, Steve Doocey, and Matt Lauer, or Cate Blanchett’s striking cross between Mika and Laura Ingraham. And when there’s finally a plan to maybe save the day, things are complicated when a douchebag tech billionaire saunters in to try to take advantage of the asteroid for money, sparking a movement centered on “supporting the jobs the asteroid will create.” Each twist is silly enough to work as a joke, yet realistic enough to keep the story’s damning subtext without losing steam. And when it keeps this anger and nuance, it can often work quite well. One of the film’s funniest angles is Leo’s unbelievably dorky Dr. Mindy getting drunk on his fame, Fauci-style, and selling out his beliefs for a paycheck and an affair. It’s a smart, funny angle that works as a narrative joke, a societal joke, and cultural commentary, all at the same time.
However, while the film is at its best when it is at its most specific, it is also at its worst when its most obvious. Now, McKay has never been a subtle director – not even with The Big Short – but while he is often a master of making ostentatiousness ingenious, he also has a penchant for getting lazy with his satire. There are veiled threads of this during the film’s first two-thirds, ranging from bad lines and “commentary” (at one point, a character comments, “The only thing trending on Twitter are these two singers breaking up”) to a recurring bit where the apps are all given names like “FriendLink,” an obvious joke from a decade ago, not some biting satire of the now. But the film’s greatest problem comes in the third act, after the President and Big Business decide to begin a disinformation campaign to protect their interests. All of a sudden, characters are walking around wearing red hats that state “Don’t Look Up.” And that’s the film’s greatest misstep. The reason the film worked so well is because the anger and attention were placed squarely on the political elites killing us, not on ordinary citizens or one particular party. The minute McKay begins to succumb to “this one person or side is the problem,” it undercuts his entire message about how broken everything is. It’s lazy and undermining and, worst of all, unfunny.
Still, at the end of the day, I do still think the film has enough humor and heart to overcome these hurdles, not to mention its own sense of smarm. While McKay never crafts a joke as smart as his work on, say, Saturday Night Live or Anchorman, he still has an inherent understanding of joke construction. There’s a relatively entertaining recurring bit surrounding the White House snack bar. In one early sequence, Dr. Mindy finds himself arguing with every single person who was mean to him online, and it’s as humorous as it sounds; for that matter, any moment involving Leo being a nebbish Midwesterner with two bearded sons who look exactly like him yet are simultaneously completely uninteresting is good for a laugh. Anything involving Rylance’s disturbingly sociopathic tech billionaire had me dying in the aisles, along with Timothée Chalamet’s evangelical hipster obsessed with fingerling potatoes. And while big setpieces usually aren’t a good thing in a big comedy, there’s an excellent parody of message songs performed by Ariana Grande during the third act. It’s no “Equal Rights” from Popstar, but it’s still catchy – and after all, what out there is as good as Popstar? All of these jokes build up to a finale that is, surprisingly, quite moving and haunting in its execution. It’s a bit incongruent with everything that comes before, but to be fair, that’s also kind of the point. Satire is funny until it isn’t, and while it doesn’t handle the transition as smoothly as, say, Dr. Strangelove or Jojo Rabbit or Parasite, it still manages to stick its own landing (before a couple of unfunny post-credits sequences that I won’t spoil here).
Helping these jokes land is a massive ensemble willing to go all-in on the joke. Obviously the film hinges on the central performances of DiCaprio and Lawrence, and thankfully they manage to balance the film’s humor and pathos well. DiCaprio has the biggest arc in the film as the nerd who sells his soul and earns it back, and while he obviously is capable of delivering the character’s big monologues, he’s more enjoyable when he’s playing up the humor – you can just tell how much he’d rather be doing comedies with his career. Lawrence, meanwhile, manages to find the humor in depression, and while it’s not her most astonishing work to date, she is more than adequate in the role – especially in the film’s final act. Rob Morgan has the film’s only serious role, and he gives a terrific performance as a straight man – one wishes he were in the film more. Similar sentiments surround character actress Melanie Lynskey, who plays DiCaprio’s put-upon wife. She makes the most of her few scenes, but one can’t help be frustrated that one of the film’s pivotal scenes (and admittedly best jokes) involves her building up to a Beatrice Straight-esque monologue, only to get cut short in the moment.
While the above-mentioned performances are a terrific example of the blend of drama and comedy, most of the performances in the film aim broader in their comedic sensibilities. At the front of the pack is Meryl, who gives perhaps the most middle-of-the-road performance you’ll ever see from her. She has this innate ability to give little looks or specific deliveries that just work perfectly. Yet while she’s funny enough in the role, but does absolutely nothing to elevate the character above caricature. If you’re looking for a comedic performance with weight and intelligence, look to Cate Blanchett, who knows exactly what she’s doing as the vapid host of a political talk show. It’s a brilliant parody of the type of newscaster we, unfortunately, all know so well at this point, and yet Blanchett elevates it well above the satire to create a complex figure of corruption and appearance – her co-host, played by Tyler Perry, can’t even match her no matter how hard he tries. Ron Perlman earns some laughs as a gruff, cantankerous general “from a different generation.” And Ariana Grande basically just plays herself, but holy sh*t what a great cameo.
But for my money, there are three performances that stand out as the film’s greatest, in terms of comedy, commentary, and even pathos. The first is Jonah Hill, who has become a go-to for figures that can be grotesque caricatures while still feeling entirely (and frighteningly) real. He’s the type of Oedipal, filterless failson whose had everything handed to him, financially and politically, and considering his co-stars (Streep, Perlman, etc.) just aren’t trained comedians, he often walk away with every scene. My favorite performance in the film comes from Mark Rylance, who is so great as a cross between Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and especially Elon Musk. He’s a terrifying, robotic man who has no understanding of social cues and no love for his fellow man, and honestly, once he’s introduced, the film is just utterly worse whenever he’s not onscreen. But for my money, Timothée Chalamet may steal this film out from everyone as a stoner Christian Bitcoin enthusiast. This is a hilariously original character – I’ve certainly never seen anyone like him onscreen before – with a surprising emotional richness. And considering dirtbag morons are Chalamet’s bread and butter (see: The French Dispatch, Lady Bird), it’s like seeing Olivier do Shakespeare.
Don’t Look Up is an interesting hodgepodge of a movie. It’s certainly a massive swing, filled with funny performances, a damning message, and a lot of individually solid jokes. But it’s way too long, not super memorable, and preaching distinctively to the choir. I mean, let’s face it: who’s going to watch this movie that doesn’t already believe that climate change is an existential crisis? But I won’t lie to you. Despite its flaws and length and those god-awful middle 45 minutes, I enjoyed myself. I laughed a great deal, and felt a much-needed catharsis over some of my anger over the last two (or more) years. Plus, most of those negative reviews out there seem madder at the realization that they’re Cate Blanchett in this scenario. So I guess it’s not all bad, right?
Don’t Look Up is now streaming on Netflix