Given the cast on offer and that it has since been nominated for a Best Picture, the 2021 film, Don’t Look Up has to be one of the most disappointing films I’ve ever seen. While that might seem like hyperbole, the film essentially stars my current favorite two actors in Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence (Denzel Washington is in a league of his own), in addition to Jonah Hill and Timothée Chalamet, who are both very, very good. Plus, if that’s not enough, you have the always reliably good Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett. And I can’t say I’ve liked a lot of director Adam McKay’s films, but I did like The Big Short a lot, which is in a similar thematic vein of sounding the alarm bell on a pressing issue (health care with that film; climate change with this one).
I even liked the performances involved, so I don’t think DiCaprio, Lawrence and the rest were underwhelming. But the script, also written by McKay, was not for me. They elevated the material. And at more than two hours long, the film was at least 20 minutes too long.
I saw someone positively compare this to Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black-comedy film, Dr. Strangelove or. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and that couldn’t be more off base to me. The comparison at the surface level makes sense: Dark comedies satirizing a salient issue of their time. The nuclear arms race with Dr. Strangelove, and climate change with Don’t Look Up. The two films directors also wrote the screenplays. But that’s where the similarities largely end for me.
Dr. Strangelove is one of my all-time favorite movies and put simply, I think Kubrick’s satirizing of the fears over nuclear war, and the absolute madness involved therein, is a lot more interesting, nuanced and importantly, subtle, compared to McKay’s treatment, which is decidedly none of those things. It’s all very on the nose.
If you created an algorithm to aggregate all of the top viral Tweets among leftists Twitter uses in the six years since Donald Trump entered the national stage to run for president, through his presidency and in the aftermath, and then had an artificial intelligence apparatus create a movie based on those Tweets, that’s what Don’t Look Up is. It all makes for obvious political punditry and social observations, which might not be so damning if it was still funny, but because it’s all so on-the-nose, I didn’t find myself laughing much at all. And I love dark humor! I love absurdity! I even loved Jonah Hill’s character here. But it all just felt like a bit … much. I’d even be close to wanting to use the word “cringe.”
The story follows Kate Dibiasky (played by Lawrence), an astronomy Ph.D. candidate, who discovers a previously unknown comet headed to Earth. The comet is miles wide, so it’s big enough to be an extinction level event for the human species.
Dibiasky and her professor, Randall Mindy (played by DiCaprio), after he confirms her findings, which are then re-affirmed by NASA, they go to the White House with Teddy Olgethorpe (played by Rob Morgan), the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The Planetary Defense Coordination Office, as the film notes, is indeed a real office in the United States government. And no, their motto is not satire; it’s legitimately, “Here To Save The Day.”
Of course, the White House, a satire of the Trump White House, dismisses the findings, then downplays them and then accepts them, but only through the prism of their re-election campaign. Add in a wacky tech billionaire who wants to mine the comet for money and media personalities who also don’t take it seriously and instead are more preoccupied by celebrity gossip, and you basically have your film.
One area I definitely thought the film went off the rails in a bad way was making DiCaprio’s character sleep with one of the media personalities, Brie (played by Blanchett). For once, casting actually got DiCaprio’s wife right, and then they make his character sleep with the bigwig media personality. Agh! It seemed way out of character. If he, Morgan and Dibiasky were supposed to be the only ones taking the impending extinction of the human race seriously, why would he be having an affair?
Speaking of comparisons to other (better) black comedy films, there’s a moment in the film where DiCaprio’s character has a monologue that reminded me very much of Peter Finch’s Howard Beale monologue in 1976’s Network, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” But the monologue was more aimed at people who aren’t taking the comet seriously. In better scripting hands, that scene would’ve been awesome because DiCaprio can deliver a Peter Finch-esque monologue in that Howard Beale vein, but in McKay’s hands, the monologue didn’t work for me. Aside from seeming like a Beale imitation, it didn’t fit the rest of the film’s goofiness.
Let’s get to two positive points, though: Dibiasky’s character was hilarious with how she couldn’t let it go that one of the White House generals conned her out of money for free food at the White House. Calling back to that at the end of the film was hilarious.
And I did love the end, when the main characters have accepted that they (and humanity and the rich billionaire) have failed and the comet is going to hit, they sit around a table talking about everything but that. Then McKay does a great shot of the explosions ripping through the house as they are still sitting there. It was the most real, authentic and lovely, if still horrific, scene of the whole film.
If there was a way to extrapolate the earnestness conveyed in that ending scene to the rest of the film, I think you would have had a higher functioning, more compelling satire film.
As it is, despite how on-the-nose the film is, none of it landed for me. My nose was left unscathed, okay.
Some of the negative reviews I’ve seen have called it “smug satire” and I think that’s a good way of describing the film. Of course, even saying that would lead those who liked the film to say the film works precisely because it expects to be met with that reaction of being “smug satire” and dismissed, thereby proving its point. But that’s too cute an attempt at meta commentary for me.
If you miss this film, I’m not sure you’re missing out on a whole lot. If you enjoy the actors involved like I do, you may want to check it out for them, as they make it worth watching to some extent. And I suppose, that ending scene is so strong, it’s worth seeing that. There you go.