This review of “Don’t Look Up” was first published on Dec. 7.
You ever meet someone who shares all your opinions, but does so in such a tiresome and grating way that you begin rethinking your own point of view? That’s “Don’t Look Up” in a nutshell; a film with all the right things to say about how government, the media, and corporations ignore the emerging disaster of climate change, but couched within a satire so lumbering that it’s enough to turn a tree hugger into a pro-fracker.
The 21st century has given writer-director Adam McKay all the ammo he needs to make a “Dr. Strangelove”–level satire about people in power fiddling while the world threatens to burn, but he’s chosen instead to create cartoonish, one-note characters and situations that wouldn’t make it out of the “SNL” writers’ room.
Perhaps the bitterest irony on display in “Don’t Look Up” is that a movie about environmental crisis flagrantly wastes its own resources, notably an all-star cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Timothee Chalamet, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance and Melanie Lynskey; the collective good intentions here could pave several highways to Hell, a destination that’s not unlike the 138 minutes required to endure this simplistic and plodding comedy.
It’s an exciting day for PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence) when she discovers a Mount Everest–sized comet making its way toward Earth, but after her mentor, Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) crunches the numbers and realizes that it’s going to hit the planet and cause an extinction-level event, the two attempt to warn the public that we’re six months away from disaster. President Orlean (Streep, in Marjorie-Taylor-Trump mode) and her chief of staff–slash–son Jason (Hill) are more concerned with the pending midterms, and when Kate and Randall go on morning news show “The Daily Rip,” the vacuous hosts would rather talk about the love life of pop singer Riley B. (Ariana Grande).
That TV appearance turns out to be disastrous, anyway, as Randall hems and haws while an exasperated Kate launches a thousand memes that portray her as a wide-eyed, “the end is near” lunatic. Orlean finally commits to action (as a distraction from an embarrassing scandal), only to have the mission aborted by billionaire cell-phone tycoon Peter Isherwell (Rylance), who wants to take over the operation so he can mine the comet for precious metals. When Kate gives up and walks away, Randall allows himself to be a mouthpiece for the government, having an affair with “Daily Rip” co-anchor Brie (Blanchett) in the process.
After four years of the Trump presidency, satire is both easier and harder than ever — there’s no shortage of targets, but how does one spoof a reality that has already tipped over into absurdity and often frightening chaos? If there’s a way to thread that needle, McKay hasn’t figured it out here. How can Cate Blanchett be expected to create a propaganda-spouting news lady who’s both believable and caricatured when Laura Ingraham exists? In an era when the fictional pro-wrestler-turned-president in “Idiocracy” feels like actual recent past, what’s left for Streep to do in creating a narcissistic and wildly unqualified POTUS? (As Randall’s deceived wife, Lysnkey probably comes off the best, mainly because her character emerges as the most recognizably human.)
There’s never any doubt as to what McKay wants to say, but he doesn’t say it in a way that’s provocative or shocking or even thought-provoking. And while this is a satire, it’s sorely lacking in actual humor — a running gag involving snacks is the only legit laugh “Don’t Look Up” can muster over its seemingly endless running time. Beyond that, it just ticks off the boxes of familiar behavior (the title refers to Orlean’s unnamed political party ignoring the obvious scientific evidence of what’s happening around them) without any kind of dramatic spin.
Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“No Time to Die”) seems to understand satire better than McKay does, shooting the film as though it were an actual political thriller and disaster movie. From TV newsrooms to the Oval Office to space shuttles to suburban liquor stores, Sandgren’s work never winks but instead provides the appropriate backdrop for the comedy that the rest of the film never supplies.
“Don’t Look Up” is absolutely right about about the world in which we live, but that doesn’t make it a success. It’s toothless satire, as useless and impotent as a crowd chanting, “Let’s Go Brandon.”
“Don’t Look Up” opens in US theaters Dec. 10 and premieres on Netflix Dec. 24.