The allegorical climate change comedy wastes its star-studded lineup’s brilliant performance on an unfunny attempt at comedy.
The new Netflix movie, ‘Don’t Look Up’, an apocalyptic black comedy that uses the narrative of a huge meteor heading toward Earth as an allegory for climate change, seemingly has a lot going for it.
For instance, the movie, which premiered on the streaming service on December 24, boasts an impressive cast, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star with Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, and Timothee Chalamet in supporting roles.
In addition, the movie is written and directed by Adam McKay, who has shown himself, most notably with his stellar film ‘The Big Short’, to be a clever and ambitious filmmaker.
Despite bursting at the seams with comedic potential and its bevy of formidable assets, the laughs of ‘Don’t Look Up’ unfortunately never blossom, but instead die on the vine.
The film opens with Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a PhD candidate at Michigan State, discovering a mammoth comet as she does research at an observatory.
Her professor, Dr. Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), does the calculations and realizes that the comet is heading toward Earth and will arrive and destroy all life on the planet, in roughly six months.
From there, Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky try and warn humanity but constantly run up against the worst of mankind, from the vapid, vacuous, and venal President Orlean (Meryl Streep) to the sociopathic tech guru Peter Ishwell (Mark Rylance) and everyone in between trying to thwart them and subvert the truth.
Part of the problem with ‘Don’t Look Up’ is that it intends to be an ambitious satirical social commentary about media, big tech, social media, celebrity culture, and our politics, but how do you successfully satirize things that are already so absurd as to be parodies of themselves?
For example, the New York Times, which the film briefly pokes fun at, wrote an article titled ‘A Comedy Nails the Media Apocalypse’ about ‘Don’t Look Up’ and the media’s alleged inability to focus on climate change because it keeps getting distracted by superfluous side stories.
In the article, as the writer, Ben Smith, opines about two empty-headed TV hosts in the film who can’t stay on topic even when that topic is the potential end of humanity, he himself gets distracted by a superfluous side story and ends up writing an aside where he chastises director McKay for having the film’s female TV host (a Mika Brzezinski type played by Cate Blanchet) sleep with DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy character.
Smith writes, “I did ask Mr. McKay if we could have a moratorium on fictional female journalists sleeping with their subjects, even if they’re Mr. DiCaprio in the guise of a nerdy scientist.”
Mr. Smith is oblivious to his inane ridiculousness and only succeeds in raising the question in regard to this movie and the media, namely, how can you satirize something that is so absurd and obscene as to be beyond satire?
There are some bright spots in the film. The first of which is that both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence give solid performances. DiCaprio, who plays a somewhat Dr. Fauci-esque scientist the media and public fall madly in love with, is particularly good in moments.
Lawrence is terrific as well, as her movie star charisma, as well as her dry delivery and impeccable timing, show themselves at times to great effect.
The supporting cast, most notably Mark Rylance as the creepy tech guru and Jonah Hill as the chief of staff and son to the president, give delicious performances. As do Cate Blanchett as the aforementioned horny TV host and Meryl Streep as the shameless, Trumpian president.
But despite such a bevy of top-notch performances, the comedy of ‘Don’t Look Up’ just never coalesces enough to make it a compelling cinematic venture.
The main culprit in the failure of the film is writer/director McKay.
McKay is trying to make ‘Don’t Look Up’ be to climate change what Stanley Kurbick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ was to the Cold War.
The problem, of course, is that for as interesting as McKay can be as a filmmaker, he is no Stanley Kubrick. Not even close.
Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ works because he never preaches or panders or allows his film to become a pure partisan political polemic. In contrast, McKay is unable to restrain his more base impulses and simply cannot resist needlessly preaching and pandering. The result is an oftentimes partisan political polemic that comes across more as self-righteous, pretentious, and smug than comedically insightful or enlightening.
The ironic thing is that McKay’s film is commenting on the short attention span and scatterbrained nature of our current culture, but it fails as a film because it is scatterbrained and lacks the unflinching focus of Kubrick’s‘ Dr. Strangelove’. Ultimately, ‘Don’t Look Up’ tries to say too much about too many things and ends up saying nothing of any substance about anything.
Like so many films this year, ‘Don’t Look Up’ isn’t a great movie, or a funny movie or even an interesting movie, it is just a movie you sit through and when it’s over you move on and never once think about it again. Which is a shame, because it could have been, and should have been, so much better.