REVIEW: Don’t Look Up (2021)

Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio in Adam McKay’s DON’T LOOK UP — Photo: Niko Tavernise / Netflix.

Directed by Adam McKay (Vice) — Screenplay by Adam McKay.

On Christmas Eve, Netflix released Adam McKay’s star-studded pre-apocalyptic satirical science-fiction film Don’t Look Up, which is a film about scientists trying to get people to care about a life-threatening event being on the horizon. The streamers’ global audience probably didn’t expect McKay’s satirical and irreverent take on a possible world-ending event in their Christmas stockings, but it isn’t coal you’ve found on Christmas morning, rather it is a minutes-to-midnight plea to look around you and realize what needs to be changed before it’s too late that is delivered via a scathing satire whose tone sometimes even resembles a Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg-esque apocalyptic comedy. Perhaps stars like DiCaprio, Lawrence, Streep, and Chalamet will get you to press play on a film that tries desperately to get people around the world to realize that we absolutely have to listen to and trust scientists and not just political campaigning.

Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up follows the increasingly exasperated Michigan State University Ph.D. student Kate Dibiasky (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and her increasingly confounded and anxious professor Dr. Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) after Dibiasky discovers a previously unknown comet. However, festivities are not in order because once they check the numbers, Dr. Mindy realizes that this potential planet-killer is headed straight for planet Earth. The high likelihood of destruction within the next six months, however, is not enough to ensure immediate pollitical action. The American President (played by Meryl Streep), and her son and Chief of Staff (played by Jonah Hill), are more concerned with the upcoming midterm elections, so they would rather try to manage the timing of the news and the severity of the wording in the headline than address the problem head on. So, the film’s scientists, including Rob Morgan’s Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, now have to try to break through the political triviliazation of the comet and the short attention span of social media and popular culture before it’s too late.

I think it is true to say that Adam McKay’s career as a filmmaker has shown him to be quite dynamic and more than just a one-genre-director. Years ago, with Step Brothers, The Other Guys, and Anchorman, McKay made his name as a whip-smart comedy filmmaker, and those films still hold up quite well. They are extremely quotable films, and, I might add, they are probably quite difficult comedies for him to top. In recent years, his best work has been as a producer (and one-time director) on the ongoing HBO masterpiece Succession, but, as a filmmaker, the last six years have been defined by an interest in very serious real-life events such as the financial crisis in The Big Short or Vice, the dark comedy biopic about Dick Cheney.

This foray into more political and serious subjects, though still with quite a lot of comedy, has often divided critics however (I think I like them both more than most — and that may also be the case with Don’t Look Up). His unsubtle films makes us of unconventional techniques, often intrusive editing, and kinetic camerawork, and this is also true for Don’t Look Up, though I think this wild technique did more for the aforementiond two films (like in The Big Short wherein Margot Robbie explains something difficult while drinking champagne from the comfort of a bubble bath) than it does for this one, which I think from time to time has the problem that the intrusive editing distracts from some scenes and some performances. The film also includes mid- and post-credits scenes that feel like they would belong better in a Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg film a la The Interview or This is the End.

Scathing and pointed, McKay’s writing doesn’t pull any punches in this film, but perhaps the distinct lack of subtlety can feel slightly hamfisted from time to time, as many of the characters are relatively cartoonish. While I actually think that Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling” from his special titled INSIDE sum up these existential anxieties more elegantly, I do think that McKay’s satire and commentary mostly hits and works. Tonally, it is an interesting beast that mostly worked quite well for me — though not quite the tonal tightrope act that some of his previous films were — but your mileage may vary as McKay’s satire won’t be for everyone this time either. He’s no Iannucci or Stanley Kubrick, but he is angry. McKay almost definitely should’ve interrogated the problems that he’s satirizing a little bit deeper in the film, but he does get his message across all the same. His angry satire delivering both depressing sighs of exasperation and hard laughs (due to the absurdity of it all) hits hard. McKay’s comedy is angry. He’s angry at world leaders who are asleep at the wheel, he’s angry at his fellow civilians for not understanding the gravity of the very real danger of climate change, he’s frustrated by bureaucracy and systems and, more than anything else, he’s angry that people keep on ignoringg scientists’ pleas.

Let’s talk about the star-studded cast that bring life to his script. Jennifer Lawrence’s anger and exasperation throughout the film feels like an audience insert, and I quite liked her in the film. Though it’s not a revelatory performance, this is probably her best film since mother!, and her performance in Don’t Look Up reminded me of her in Silver Linings Playbook. Jonah Hill and Meryl Streep’s obnoxious and inuriating characters felt more like sketch-characters than movie characters, to me. Streep’s president is clearly inspired by Donald Trump. Mark Rylanc and Timothée Chalamet were great surprises, to me. Their roles are much larger than the marketing indicated, and they are probably the most memorable supporting characters in here. Rylance is channelling both Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and even Teddy Perkins in his creepy performance as this influential tech billionaire character. Chalamet, on the other hand, may move you to tears, when his character turns to prayer.

By far the most interesting character is Leonardo DiCaprio’s. That this is a climate change allegory is sure to have made DiCaprio, a particularly environmentally conscious celebrity, prick up his ears and become deeply interested in getting his message across. DiCaprio plays a terrified and anxious professor, who becomes blinded by the alluring light of stardom. His character has a real arc, he feels real, and DiCaprio’s presence and competent performance definitely adds some gravitas to the satire film. DiCaprio also gets to do a deeply satisfying Network-esque rant at a time when the slightly overlong film desperately needed it.

Though it is sure to be divisive, what Adam McKay brought to the table really worked for me with Don’t Look Up. It is a disheartening, depressing, and cynical pre-apocalyptic satire with a lot of pointed (though sometimes crass) comedy fueled by very real anger. Maybe it can make people listen, and, well, now McKay can say that at least he, too, tried. Let’s see if it’ll make people want to look up from their phones.

8 out of 10

– Review by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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