Academy Award-winners Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep lead this grim comedy about scientists trying to get the word out about an impending comet impact. Its cast is largely squandered amid frequently extremely average gags, writes Steve Newall.
Adam McKay changed tack fairly abruptly from a series of absurd, improv-tinged comedies (Anchorman, Step Brothers) with 2015 Oscar winner The Big Short. Detailing the post-millenium collapse of the US housing bubble, it was the most “film”-like of McKay’s work thus far, and showcased a keen satirical intelligence that lurked inside his other work, if often obscured by enjoyable buffoonery.
The Big Short was angry and outraged—by greed, by risk-taking, by human nature. These qualities were somewhat evident in McKay’s follow-up Vice, but this true-story comedy unfortunately didn’t have the same wow factor, focusing as it did on over-familiar former Vice President and long-term liberal punching bag Dick Cheney and lacking The Big Short’s sharpness.
On its surface, Don’t Look Up combines the differing elements of McKay’s filmography, using scripted satire to highlight real-life issues—namely the imminent, inevitable climate crisis facing our planet (represented here by a giant comet on collision course with Earth). More familiar celestial bodies also star—Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence the discoverers of the comet and its terrifying trajectory; Meryl Streep a Palin/Boebert President and Jonah Hill her son/chief of staff; Timothée Chalamet a hot young guy with great hair.
Bafflingly, Don’t Look Up seems to think we’ll be shocked that the response of politicians to the threat is to not give a shit, and that the billionaire class comes to see it as an opportunity at everyone else’s expense. Holding a mirror up to our own reality doesn’t count for much when watching this only conjures a shrug of “yep, that’s what it’s like, I guess”.
As with the failure of the film’s critiques to elicit any kind of a response, the comedy itself is frequently extremely average. Many gags outright bomb, others muster merely a snigger. Completing a tragic trifecta creatively, the cast is largely squandered through unrelatable character development, or held hostage by McKay’s leaden hand.
A key exception to this is Mark Rylance as tech squillionaire Peter Isherwell, who brings an odd-bod rigour to his performance that channels Warhol as much as Gates or any of the Silicon Valley crowd. And I’ve got to admit, Ariana Grande sings a pretty good song at one point. On the other hand, Streep struts far too smugly as a classless Republican POTUS, and Hill’s Trump-bro lands all too few of his punches, feeling like he’s phoning in yet another heel turn most of the time.
There may not have been a comet involved, but this stuff’s been done better in plenty of other places, even if The Thick of It/Veep admittedly sets an impossibly high bar for political comedy to leap.
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As for the film’s theoretical stars, DiCaprio and Lawrence may not be phoning it in, exactly, but they’re far from compelling. DiCaprio does gormless and schlubby, Lawrence perma-stoned and occasionally outraged—and when the duo find themselves at the epicentre of a media storm, all it really offers is another opportunity for McKay to state the obvious, this time about the state of news today.
Perhaps most disappointing is Don’t Look Up’s sense of futility. Not the narrative, not the observations about political avoidance, but the film itself. Politics is broken, the media’s broken, science is ignored and humans are fallible. So what the fuck do we do about it? McKay doesn’t seem to offer any answers in this below-average comedy (one that’s once again demonstrated the Golden Globes irrelevance with its multiple nominations).