Movie Review: Don’t Look Up
Plot: When Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) confirm that a comet is heading on a collision course for Earth, they immediately move to notify the appropriate authorities. However, much to their dismay, the two find resistance to the threat from demagogue President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her bumbling Chief of Staff son Jason (Jonah Hill). Mindy and Dibiasky’s attempts to bring the news to the public through the popular morning show The Daily Rip is also met with ridicule and derision. With a seemingly disinterested public that denies the comet even exists and a tech billionaire (Mark Rylance) looking to mine the comet for precious minerals, can Randall and Kate galvanize the public in time to save the Earth?
Review: The career trajectory of director/screenwriter Adam McKay has been anything but a straight line. After delivering classic comedies like Anchorman, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, he went on to write the MCU film Ant-Man and then surprised everyone with the critically acclaimed 2015 comedy-drama The Big Short. While his biographical black drama/comedy Vice didn’t land as well as The Big Short, it nevertheless garnered eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Actor.
With Don’t Look Up, McKay veers into black satire territory. The current film discourse on this movie would have you believe it is either a raging dumpster fire or worthy of ten Oscar nominations. I’m here to say that neither is true. In fact, I was kind of surprised at how aggressively mediocre Don’t Look Up actually is. The hyperbole is so out of control you’d think this movie was The English Patient crossed with The Human Centipede.
Most of Don’t Look Up’s problems stem from a complete lack of subtlety or nuance. The comet is quite obviously an allegory for climate change and how too many are content to stick their heads in the sand and pretend the issue isn’t happening. Indeed, this movie is as about as subtle as a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick to the solar plexus. Everything from the bold, bright, and tawdry credits to the profanity-laced, over-the-top on-air speeches given by Randall and Kate – it’s all spoon-fed to the audience. Perhaps that’s the point McKay is trying to make and that we all need “a wake-up call.” However, whatever his intentions, the whole film comes across as so smug, self-important, and pretentious that the “message” gets lost.
The other major problem is that aside from Mindy and Dibiasky, none of McKay’s characters are well written. In fact, they all come off as caricatures rather than fully fleshed-out characters. Meryl Streep’s Orlean is essentially the female version of Trump, pandering to her base and more concerned with scoring political points and the mid-term elections rather than actually helping people. Morning show co-hosts Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry) demonstrate to the audience what it would look like if Good Morning America came alive and took physical human form. As for Mark Rylance’s tech billionaire Peter Isherwell…it’s like he decided to watch YouTube videos on Bezos, Musk, and Jobs, put them in a blender, trip his balls off on mushrooms, and use that energy for his character. I’m stunned at how much talent is sacrificed at the altar of horrible screenwriting.
Both DiCaprio and Lawrence somewhat redeem Don’t Look Up through their performances. I’ve always believed the true mark of a great actor is how well they do in a poor film and thankfully both make McKay’s film watchable. While some have claimed that DiCaprio is miscast as the neurotic, nebbish, and socially awkward Mindy, I strongly disagree. He’s definitely cast against type, but I bought his performance through and through. In fact, he probably gets the best arc of anyone as he goes from harbinger of doom, to celebrity, to an advisor to the rich and powerful, to humbled family man. Meanwhile, Dibiasky’s character is tailormade for Lawrence. It’s heartbreaking to see someone who knows the destruction of the human race is imminent attempt to inform the public and then be mocked, memed, and dismissed outright. Jennifer Lawrence clearly brings that desperation and anguish across and as always is equally adept at cynical, snarky, dark humor.
Speaking of humor, there’s a dearth of it in Don’t Look Up. I once heard that the worst thing a joke can be is not offensive, but unfunny. The same thing can be said for satire. Aside from a few dry chuckles and a humorous song by of all people Ariana Grande, Don’t Look Up is almost completely devoid of laughs. There’s even a running gag about a military commander selling free snacks to Mindy and Dibiasky that’s never funny and always annoying. When you combine a lack of humor in a comedy with a ham-fisted message movie, the result is a two-and-a-half-hour-long chore.
The fact that Don’t Look Up is a message movie about climate change too often derails the film itself. His commentary, such as it is, feels like it is preaching to the choir. It’s made for people who already agree that climate change is real and that deniers are ignorant morons that won’t acknowledge the problem until the tsunami hits. What the Hell is the point then? You’re not going to win people to your cause by outright insulting them every ten minutes even if it is warranted. Consequently, Don’t Look Up exists in its own echo chamber with no one to shout at but itself. The closest the film gets to real empathy and a place of truth occurs towards the end of the movie where Mindy and Dibiasky gather at Mindy’s home for a family meal.
Sadly, Don’t Look Up is too smug and self-involved to resonate as a quality climate change film and too devoid of laughs to ever be funny. If you want a great movie on climate change that’s nuanced and superbly made, go watch First Reformed and skip this one.
My rating system:
1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
4 Sub Par
8 Very Good
10 A Must See
Don’t Look Up: 4/10