‘Don’t Look Up,’ a disastrous disaster comedy from Adam McKay
What would it take to get people to pay attention to planetary destruction? Not even an impending extinction-level comet collision, or Jennifer Lawrence screaming “We’re all going to fucking die!” on cable news.
This is a thing that I, too, have screamed, albeit AT the television. There’s no dearth of looming catastrophes to scream about. But spinning it into comedy is tough to pull off. There’s a reason Dr. Strangelove holds up so well.
DON’T LOOK UP★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Adam McKay
Written by: Adam McKay
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Rob Morgan
Running time: 145 mins
As with his last movie, the mostly-reviled Vice, McKay goes in mostly for too-broad swings at the right. While this’ll scratch a guilty pleasure itch for some of us, it is never what you’d call incisive. If McKay wanted to stay in the comedy business, which was once booming with Step Brothers and Anchorman and Green Team, he should have stayed on good terms with Will Ferrell.
Leonardo DiCaprio schlubs up to play Dr. Mindy, a Michigan State astronomy professor whose grad student Kate (Lawrence, wearing dubious bangs) discovers a mega-comet that’s on track to demolish every living thing on Earth in six months. The two hustle off to Washington for a too-brief meeting with the president (Meryl Streep), but not before spending hours waiting in the Oval Office lobby, where a general from the Pentagon shakes them down for money for what they find out later are free White House snacks.
The snacks bit becomes a running gag, and it’s maybe the best thing about this movie. It’s a rare moment when Lawrence gets to be funny, and it leans into the way humans will always obsess over the little things, even in the face of existential horror.
More often, though, the screenplay is extremely half-baked. Near the start, Dr. Mindy and Kate connect with the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (Rob Morgan). The action pauses to announce in big yellow font that this is a real office that exists, and shows you its silly official badge. But, tellingly, it’s the only time the movie does this. It’s like McKay thought for a minute about echoing The Big Short’s fourth-wall breaks, then ran out of time and/or interest.
Instead, he just packs in a lot of A-listers, to varying degrees of success. Streep seems about ten percent present as the MAGA-ish President Orlean, whose people invent the comet-denying rally slogan “Don’t look up” for her moronic followers. Jonah Hill is predictably insufferable as her campaign-advisor son. Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry fare better as the malevolently shallow hosts of a popular morning show, mostly because they actually seem to be having a good time.
The esteemed Mark Rylance gets the role that would have gone to Peter Sellers back in the day, an eccentric tech billionaire with designs on saving the comet to mine it for precious metals. I get that Rylance is doing Acting, but he speaks way too slowly in a movie that has no business being over two hours long.
Because of McKay’s comedy cred, he has an endless pool of other willing cameo talent, including Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Sarah Silverman, Ron Perlman, Melanie Lynskey (currently doing wonderfully dark things over on Yellowjackets), and Liev Schreiber’s voice. And who shows up at the 11th hour but Timothée Chalamet, as all movies this year mandate, playing a skate punk with an evangelical past. He’s sort of sweet, and in the film’s final chapter, he provides some welcome sincerity.
I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say Don’t Look Up ends on a less-than-hopeful note. And ultimately, all this does is make those of us who share McKay’s outrage kind of tired and sad. For climate change deniers, it’ll serve up more cannon fodder about elitism. Don’t Look Up will change zero hearts and minds.
If you want trenchant social commentary dressed up as broad humor, I’d steer you instead to Cecily Strong’s clown abortion bit. Now there’s someone who’s mastered crying on the inside, spinning bow tie on the outside.