Published January 9, 2022 at ZekeFilm.org.
Adam McKay, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence Return for Disaster Comedy
DIRECTOR: ADAM MCKAY/2021
Don’t Look Up is too long, too loose, and too heavy-handed, but with a cast like this, even a messy film can find great moments.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence return to the screen for the first time since 2019 as Dr. Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky, the first scientists to discover a comet twice the size of Central Park shooting toward Earth. Sharing this news earns a smaller reaction than they’d expect. The President (Meryl Streep) wants to keep this planet killer quiet until after the midterms. Cable news anchors like Brie and Jack (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) want to wash the news down with Champagne and jokes. Steve Jobs doppelgänger Peter (Mark Rylance) thinks it’s an opportunity for the economy. Other media voices (including but not limited to Michael Chiklis and Himesh Patel) aren’t sure they believe this comet is even coming.
Adam McKay is getting some things off his chest. This imperfect climate change allegory operates with the same level of subtlety as Hamlet’s Act III play-within-a-play—that is, with at least a lighter touch than 2018’s Vice, McKay’s diatribe pretending to be a narrative film. He’s taking gossamer-veiled pot-shots at the world’s inaction on global warming, plus the Trump presidency, public response to COVID-19, Big Government, Big Media, Big Tech, social media, celebrity, and pretty much anything else on his mind. The script aspires to the doomsday comedy of Dr. Strangelove, but it executes with the focus of Love Actually. Add the vitriol of cable news, the transience of social media, and the ripped-from-the-headlines winks, and you’ve got a movie that is such a time capsule of our cultural moment it will feel dated within a few years.
Don’t Look Up is more successful when devoting attention to its performers instead of its commentary. At times, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and the best jokes are self-deprecating. Jonah Hill is updating his self-parody character from This Is the End, and that humble-bragging Chris Evans cameo is killer. DiCaprio and Lawrence are playing versions of themselves, too: talented public figures who are—in his case—too beautiful and—in her case—too meme-able to be taken seriously.
There may be a more focused edit of the film that lives up to its Dr. Strangelove ambitions, one that doesn’t make me ask aloud why scenes are still running or included at all. What if more time had been spent exploring Randall’s seduction to fame? What if it was dedicated to developing the thankless roles for overqualified performers like Chiklis, Patel, and the pill-chucking Melanie Lynskey? What if this movie let DiCaprio heir-apparent Timothée Chalamet appear before the 80-minute mark because he’s a capital-M Movie Star dominating 2021’s Q4 with Dune, The French Dispatch, and our holiday Little Women rewatch? If we can’t write to the strengths of one of the best Hollywood casts ever assembled (also including but not limited to Rob Morgan and Ron Perlman), then let’s cut the 30 minutes of bloat around them. Apologies to Ariana Grande, but her self-spoof was worth one good Chris Evans joke, not the additional 10 weak ones and mediocre song she was dragged through.
Don’t Look Up lives somewhere between the popcorn silliness of Armageddon and the depressing spectacle of Deep Impact (the two movies anyone alive in 1998 will be thinking of as they watch), and it burns brightest in the little moments that show rather than tell McKay’s worldview. I don’t need DiCaprio performing a stale rant about an ineffective presidential administration, but I love watching him as a khaki-wearing dad chuffed at his own responses to Twitter trolls. The former is a self-projection I’ve seen thousands of times online, but the latter reveals the humanity behind our screens. Beneath the tonal ADHD and tirades that speak only to those with the same politics, Don’t Look Up does have a point. The biggest frustration of Vice is it spends two hours venting about people in power but provides no solutions. McKay’s latest acknowledges how bureaucracy and business deter lasting change, but a sliver of optimism lives in the individuals fighting for the future. (Spoiler alert!) In the final and best scene of the film, we see every individual grapple with the end of the world. As leaders and influencers deny, disappear, or drink through their final moments, we see family and friends Chalamet, DiCaprio, Lawrence, Lynskey, and Morgan join hands around a dinner table. As Nicholas Britell’s pulsing score softens, they share authentic gratitude and prayer. (End spoiler alert.) Even on Doomsday, what they say and do matters, and that bit of hope is enough to move you to tears.