Don’t Look Up, the latest from director / co-writer Adam McKay, might be the worst film of 2021, a two-and-a-half-hour comedy without a single witty observation about humankind and our self-imposed plights. It makes McKay’s Vice, also a terrible, smug film, look like the masterpiece so many critics preemptively declared it back in 2018. Nothing can redeem Vice, though, and nothing can make Don’t Look Up the film so many are already proclaiming to be an awards contender. Watching a current McKay film is no more entertaining or informative than reading a Twitter thread by some con artist like Seth Abramson, who makes a living off weaving hyperbolic narratives that largely serve to sell books and endorsements. The film is rambling and diversionary, not as smart as it thinks it is or even a fraction as smart as it needs to be simply as a blatant, bare-minimum political allegory.
The story plays out as the fantasy of a far-too-online wealthy liberal whose primary interactions with other people come solely through the prism of his follows and equally privileged social circles. Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Ph.D.-candidate assistant, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), are academic astronomers at Michigan State University. Mindy has a plethora of everyman health problems and a supportive wife and kids. Dibiasky has a long-distance boyfriend who may not be the kind of man she deserves. They’re not the sort of scientists usually destined for stardom.
One night, they discover a “planet-killer” comet on approach to Earth, with impact in just over six months. They immediately notify Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA. The three of them bring their information straight to the White House, where President Orlean (Meryl Streep) basically tells them she does not care because the threat would hurt her chances in the midterm elections. From there, the trio of scientists tries its hardest to get the word out to a planetary population too enamored with short-term entertainment to care about an impending apocalypse. Rather than focusing on the lives of his three protagonists and their efforts to save the world, McKay’s screenplay descends into a hyperactive series of erratic plot movements and tired political commentary about the systemic corruption of American culture.
But hey, at least McKay inserts an almost full-length Ariana Grande performance to nail down that Best Original Song Oscar nomination.
I’ve spoken in generalities for the most part, and it’s hard to go into all the particulars of where Don’t Look Up goes wrong. The one that sticks out the most, however, is the President Orlean character. Streep takes the opportunity to ham up as an openly corrupt President in the mode of Trump and a number of his predecessors. Her character runs from scandal to scandal and ultimately dooms the Earth due to selfish short-sightedness. She uses the asteroid only as a means to bolster her own popularity. Given the last four years, her take on a Trump-like figure isn’t so much hitting close to home as it is … boring, frankly. It’s bottom-barrel satire, like a lousy Saturday Night Live sketch stretched too thin.
The truth of the rising tide of right-wing governance isn’t Trumpian figures but rather men and women who desire authoritarian leadership and the psychological comfort that sort of thing brings, along with an electoral system shamefully out of step with the broader desires of the American public. It’s also the truth that, between filming Don’t Look Up and its release, Trump was resoundingly defeated by a boring old Senator from Delaware. That defeat doesn’t diminish what Trump was or what he and other Republicans will bring to bear over the coming years. It doesn’t erase the cultural damage the last several decades of conservative propaganda have wrought. But it does make Don’t Look Up, a movie so firmly built off a broad parody of Trump, feel deeply out of date and tired.
McKay’s engorged runtime doesn’t make it any more palatable, either. It’s the same jokes over and over and over again, with scant humanity or humility between caricatures and snide smackdowns. DiCaprio is initially compelling as the nebbish Mindy, but soon the character morphs into a meta-joke about how attractive he is and eventually becomes confident enough to have his own Network-esque scream at TV cameras on an unrealistically popular cable morning show. The speech is deeply self-aggrandizing and the entire setup … well, when your entire satirical edge is that modern culture is too transfixed by new media to care about the world around them, it seems a little weird that the crux of your entertainment ecosphere is a show only bored housewives would actually watch.
Speaking of bored housewives: We know that women are one of the key swing vote constituencies in American politics right now, particularly suburban women. I’m not saying Don’t Look Up needed to feature a diverse array of main characters or a sympathetic portrayal of the types of people who don’t see right-wing ascendancy as a serious issue. But the film is fundamentally lacking in any sort of empathy for regular human beings. The closest it gets is Timothée Chalamet’s late-in-the-game introduction as Yule, a teenager who romances Dibiasky on the eve of the apocalypse. He’s a rocker evangelical who “came to his faith on his own,” but he’s a glorified supporting player. Chalamet is actually really likable in the role and I wish there had been more of him.
At the start, it seems Mindy’s story will be that of an everyman. Instead, he’s quickly seduced by the call of fame and influence. I understand that is part of the satire, but it’s not interesting. It’s certainly not as interesting a performance from DiCaprio than he is when he’s an anxious person who truly believes in something. Perhaps the most fundamental problem here is just a complete lack of curiosity from McKay and company — not enough time to explore human beings as they’re too busy proudly screaming into a void of their own creation.
A friend and fellow critic likened Don’t Look Up to listening to a younger person, freshly aware of the world around them, endlessly explain ideas you already know and agree with in the most annoying, overbearing and often inaccurate ways possible. On one hand, you might say, “Yes, I agree. Climate change is bad.” But on the other, spending two-and-a-half hours wondering if someone has anything remotely interesting or insightful to add to that point? What a tedious exercise. What a colossal bore.
McKay, for all his Twitter-style filmmaking, doesn’t have to put himself out there publicly to directly face the unwashed masses of public opinion. I can’t fault him that. But watching Vice, and now this, I’m sure he would write off anyone who responds negatively to his film as a Republican or an idiot. I’ve been a Democrat since before I could vote and for a long time, I was far more left-wing than most of my friends or family. It’s not that I don’t think climate change is an immediate threat, it’s that McKay’s movie is so condescending, humorless and self-congratulatory that sitting in that darkened theater, I fully understand now why so many Trump voters were motivated simply by the fantasy that voting for him was a way of telling rich liberals to go fuck themselves.