In 2017, two years after stepping down as showrunner of the HBO comedy Veep, veteran political satirist Armando Iannucci spoke about his career to a panel at the Sydney Writers Festival. The conversation soon turned to the White House, both the useless West Wing-obsessed Obama Democrats and the newly-installed mad cartoon President Trump. Iannucci expressed relief that he left Veep before American politics became so grim and bizarre that it left no room for parody. “I don’t know how I’d respond to the situation in America now,” said Ianucci. “I mean, I don’t want to bring a downer on the evening… but we are that close to the end of the world.”
This is the environment into which Netflix and director Adam McKay release Don’t Look Up, a political farce about the US government’s response (or lack thereof) to a massive comet that’s on a collision course toward Earth. It’s a bloody autopsy of American political and media culture, and boasts three generations of Hollywood’s biggest stars putting in a solid day’s work. What it isn’t, is funny. Despite its quirky advertising, Don’t Look Up is less of a comedy and more of a plea to the public to stop laughing at our absurd world and start screaming to save it. My gut response was to call the film “a bit tryhard,” to expound on the ways I think McKay’s attempts at profundity aren’t particularly successful and on the identity crisis the film seems to suffer throughout. I‘m still going to do that. But as I’ve collected my thoughts for this review, I’ve found a lot to like about the film and have become fixated on one of its central questions: What is the value of delicacy in the face of mass destruction?
As Subtle as a Trillion-Ton Rock
While studying for her doctorate, Kate DiBiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her mentor Dr. Randy Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover the one thing no astronomer wants to find — there’s a comet the size of Mt. Everest on a collision course for Earth. Unless something is done quickly, our world will end in just over six months. Together with government scientist Dr. Teddy Ogelthorpe (Rob Morgan), they bring evidence of their discovery to President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), an image-obsessed narcissist who has packed her administration with useless cronies, including her foul-mouthed son/Chief of Staff Jason (Jonah Hill). Concerned that news of a world-ending threat could hurt her party in the midterms, Orlean orders the discovery buried, leading our trio of scientists to embark on a rogue press campaign to alarm the public and force the government into action.
The media class isn’t much help, and bungles the rollout of Kate and Randy’s findings. The pair makes an appearance on The Daily Rip, America’s most popular morning show, hosted by the vapid Bree Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry). When Kate resists Bree and Jack’s attempts to sugarcoat the doomsday message, she is vilified and memefied for her onscreen “freakout.” Meanwhile, Randy’s boyish smile and Xanax-induced calm make him a sex symbol overnight. Each step towards saving the world is met with a new set of ridiculous obstacles, as all parties (save for our scientists) continue to base all their decisions on what “plays best” vs. what will actually solve the problem.
Analogies to the real climate change crisis, as well as to COVID-19, are obvious and plentiful. Don’t Look Up’s comet is essentially a faster and louder version of our extinction-level climate threat, the discovery of which was suppressed for decades and which scores of American politicians are still finding excuses to deny. Even as we draw nearer and nearer to an irreversible tipping point, lawmakers continue to kick the can down the road in search of some imaginary moment of perfect political convenience. During the pandemic, clear-cut matters of science have become wedge issues, and the American public is more unwilling than ever to agree on a single set of facts upon which to form an opinion. Don’t Look Up pits this same society against a world-ending threat that’s even easier to imagine and simpler to explain, and assumes that we would react in exactly the same way, because to assume anything else would be insanity. McKay turns the absurdity dial up a notch from our reality, but it’s only the difference between an 8 and a 9. Its plausibility in the real world is the first thing that makes Don’t Look Up more scary than funny. (The other is that the jokes are not good. More on this later.)
No Lies Detected
I’m happy to report that Don’t Look Up does not lazily place the blame for the planet’s almost certain doom solely on the Republican Party (as Hollywood movies will occasionally do), but on our entire political machine. While it’s never explicitly stated, a number of clues indicate that President Orlean is a Democrat, namely her photo with Bill Clinton, her loudly ignorant opposition party, and of course her steadfast commitment to doing as little as possible. (This disillusionment toward both of America’s leading political parties is not surprising, as the film was co-plotted by Jacobin editor David Sirota.) There are no heroes among the politicians of Don’t Look Up, only self-serving opportunists and pawns of the super-rich. Above even the President in the chain of command is billionaire technocrat and Double-Platinum Eagle-level campaign donor Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), whose desire to exploit the incoming comet for its $140 trillion in rare minerals gets priority over all other plans to save the Earth. Through Isherwell, McKay and Sirota skewer the neoliberal delusion of the free-market Space Messiah, as his lofty plans to create a futuristic utopia are portrayed as the blatherings of a weirdo who’s deluded himself into believing that hoarding his massive wealth is helping anyone but himself.
Only the scientists actually know what they’re talking about, but Don’t Look Up also cautions against idealizing individual researchers. DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy is just a nervous midwestern everyman at the start of the film, but soon becomes the kind of prominent news figure that Boomers write uncomfortably horny Facebook posts about. The scale of his celebrity outgrows his message, and he finds himself corrupted by the temptations of the flashy but empty world of broadcast new media. Kate, on the other hand, has no scientific bedside manner and is marginalized for behaving the way any normal person would when told that the sky is falling. She becomes a victim of the civility discourse that dismisses anyone who acts out of fear or anger as if fear and anger are universally “bad” feelings, regardless of their source. Dr. Ogelthorpe possesses poise and integrity in the right measure, but for reasons never explained in the text, he’s kept out of the spotlight. (The real reason is that it would lead to much less drama.) Ultimately, McKay wants you to respect science as a process over the individuals who practice it, which is an inarguably rational take.
Rationality, however, is in short supply, which leads to another of the film’s core messages — In the modern world, media and marketing savvy are the only tools that matter. Whoever controls the news cycle controls the world, and holding the public’s attention often requires telling them what they want to hear. The announcement of Kate and Randy’s discovery is buried by the fraught and highly public relationship between pop stars Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) and DJ Chello (Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescotti). News about the comet only gets traction once it’s turned into a militarized, jingoistic circus complete with its own John Wayne-style figurehead (Ron Perlman). Chief among the film’s cultural criticisms is against our compulsion to squash bad feelings the moment they surface, and to try to make horrible things palatable instead of dealing with how horrible they are. Don’t Look Up turns on an impassioned speech in which a character argues that making light of a serious issue doesn’t solve anything, that sometimes the right thing to do is to be afraid. Reading this as the film’s thesis made me a lot more forgiving of its failings.
That Said, There are Some Failings
For the first hour of the film (which runs 138 minutes), Don’t Look Up does everything to convince you that it’s a comedy, except to be funny. Jennifer Lawrence’s character reacts to her apocalyptic discovery by getting as high as possible. Jonah Hill spouts bro-y Roman Roy-style barbs and raves about how hot his mom is. The President gets embroiled in an increasingly bizarre sex scandal. Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill play their scenes broad and bawdy while DiCaprio, Lawrence, and Morgan sit across from them, in the real world. Meryl Streep is never not charming, but she scored no laugh-out-loud moments with me. Jokes become more sparse during the second act as the tone gets more earnest and the film goes so far as to explain to you why that’s the case (see above), but the broad sight gags return in the final 10 minutes anyway. The best moments in Don’t Look Up are its most earnest and dramatic, but the film wrestles with its tone from beginning to end.
Don’t Look Up might be the most star-studded film of the year, but not one of the actors in it knocked me out. It’s interesting to see DiCaprio play against type as a regular joe and he has the best subplot in the film, but Randy Mindy is ultimately not a memorable character. This should be the role that breaks Leo’s streak of Oscar nods, though I’d never bet against the Academy making bad choices. (Congrats in advance to Best Actress Kristen Stewart.) My favorite performances come from Cate Blanchette as a sociopathic talk show host and Mark Rylance as a weirdo tech mogul, both of whom are playing bigger, more comedic characters. Timothy Chalamet has a charming turn as a skate punk who’s smitten with Lawrence’s Kate, but the role is too small to make a significant footprint. Everyone in this orchestra has come to play, but the bigger, brassier instruments tend to drown out the more delicate ones.
All of Adam McKay’s directorial quirks are at play here, and none of them are helping. In the first ten minutes, the film is interrupted by superimposed text that explains that a particularly silly-sounding government agency is, in fact, real. This is the only such interruption in the film, which in hindsight makes it seem rather out of place. (The agency is mentioned only once more in the film.) There are frequent cutaways to the social media response to events, which is a gimmick that only works during the film’s more broadly comic moments. McCay and editor Hank Corwin apparently find cutting from a scene in the middle of a word of dialogue to be the height of comedy, because it’s done way too much here. In each act, there’s a montage of activity around the world — some shots of people reacting to events, shots of people just living their lives, shots of wildlife — in a variety of different color palettes and film grains. It’s obviously meant to convey the magnitude and diversity of life on Earth, the very thing at stake in the film, but it came across to me as a bit distracting and heavy-handed.
Which brings me back to the question I’ve been pondering since I left the theater. What does this, or any other movie about climate change have to gain by not being heavy handed? If the point of a work is that we shouldn’t avoid thinking about the massive threat that’s always hanging over our heads, then why shouldn’t that work be loudly, transparently preoccupied with it? There is a lot at stake. We should be thinking about it all the time. Don’t Look Up is a medium-good movie, a 6 or 7 out of 10 so far as I’m concerned, but I like what it has to say, and I have to admit an admiration for any film that can make me talk myself into liking it more using its own language and logic.