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Thursday, December 30, 2021

Don't Look Up


In assembling his apocalyptic comedy-drama, Don't Look Up, writer-director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) has put together the kind of cast that most films would kill for.  With a who's-who of talent including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalomet, Ron Perlman, and Ariana Grande, it's no wonder that Netflix is mainly advertising the cast that's been included here.  

When watching a movie, the late, great Gene Siskel was famous for asking, "Is this movie better than a documentary of the same stars having lunch together?".  That was always his response as to whether or not a film was working, and it makes sense.  Are the characters up on the screen that these actors are playing more interesting than it would be to watch these actors as they truly are off the camera having lunch and normal conversations with each other?  In the case of Don't Look Up, I think the film fails that basic question for a simple reason.  The characters that McKay have given these actors in his script simply don't live up to the talent.  This is a an obvious and heavy-handed satire that misses the mark more than it hits, and seems to make the same point repeatedly, almost as if it thinks we don't understand the point the film is trying to make.  This seemingly can't miss prospect is brought down by a script that underlines every point and notion, when a more subtle and witty approach would have worked better.

It's not that I don't agree with the point McKay is making here, which is to basically say that the world is more obsessed with social media and celebrity culture than it is about its own well being, because it certainly is.  The movie has hit a nerve with the Climate Change community, who feel that this film represents their struggles to make people care about the plight they believe in.  I get that.  My problem is that the movie is never as funny or as smart as it seems to think it is.  He also wants to go after artificial celebrities, talking head news programs, and people in the highest offices of politics who don't have a clue about what they are doing, and only care about personal power and the polls.  Again, all valid points.  But the movie comes across as overly cynical and sneering.  It's not really having fun with any of its targets or subject matter.  It simply wants to point and mock, and doesn't go much deeper than that.

That's ultimately what makes Don't Look Up so frustrating.  It's a movie that I think many will agree with, but simply won't find all that enjoyable or funny.  A good comedy can be made off of this idea.  Heck, there have been a number of films the past 20 years or so that took a satirical look at the end of the world, such as This is the End (which featured a bunch of celebrities playing over the top caricatures of themselves dealing with an apocalyptic event), or Seeking a Friend for the End of the World with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley.  Both of these films are far funnier, meaningful, and in the case of Seeking a Friend... more heartfelt than anything McKay tries here.  In telling its story of the efforts of two scientists to convince the world to care that the world is about to end, it forgets to have fun with its own premise, and kind of hits the same repetitive notes.

Said scientists are Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence).  Kate is the first to discover a new comet that is getting close to Earth's orbit, and it's Randall who crunches the numbers and finds out that in only six months, the comet will strike Earth, and that due to its massive size, the impact will be powerful enough to wipe out all life on Earth.  After bringing their findings to NASA, they are given an audience with the President of the United States (Meryl Streep), who decides to take a "wait and see" approach, due to the fact that she's dealing with a potential sex scandal at the moment regarding one of her Supreme Court nominees.

With time ticking away, Mindy and Dibiasky go on a morning news show hosted by a plastic pair of bantering hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) to plead their case, and hope to alert the world as to what's going on.  Unfortunately, Kate has a blow up on air, and becomes the subject of social media ridicule, while Randall is only admired for his good looks on the interview.  Eventually, plans are made to have a rocket fly up to destroy the comet before it hits Earth, but plans again change when a tech billionaire named Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) discovers that the comet is made up of valuable resources, and sees it as a way to make America richer.  The President and her son (Jonah Hill) decide to listen to conspiracy theories instead of facts, and the world becomes divided on what should be done about the approaching comet, or if there even is a comet.  Even when the comet gets close enough to be seen in the night sky, the President spearheads a "Don't Look Up" campaign.

You can see the potential here, all of which McKay squanders on a script that takes obvious jabs, and some bad editing choices. (The first time the scientists have a meeting with the President, the camera keeps on cutting to photos around the place of her with different celebrities.  Why?) Again, I think a lot of the points he's making about how divided America is when faced with a crisis are sound.  He just never finds a way to make it entertaining.  He does hit on some good ideas, such as having DiCaprio go on a Sesame Street-like show trying to explain his ideas to Muppets and kids, but for every scene that does generate laughs, there are just as many that fail to hit, and probably would have worked better with a less heavy and obvious approach than the one he employs here.


I again want to bring up Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.  That was a movie from 2012 that not many saw, but it stuck with me, because it actually made me think how I would react in a situation that those characters were in during their final days.  It was advertised as a comedy, and while it had its humorous moments, it was a deeply powerful film that deserved more praise than it got.  In comparison, Don't Look Up leaves no impression other than the filmmaker's desire to sneer at his audience for over two hours.

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