Watching Don’t Look Up — which is surely among the most grating and unpleasant films of 2021 — it’s baffling to consider that director / co-writer Adam McKay was also responsible for some of the finest comedies of the 21st century thus far. His beloved collaborations with Will Ferrell like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby were, at the time, revelatory in their absurdist leanings and endless non-sequitur jokes.
They also, in their playful ways, presented cutting commentary of the fragile egos of the American male. Watching middle-aged men like Ferrell and John C. Reilly tearfully wrestle each other on their parents’ front lawn in Step Brothers is really only mildly more absurd than the political theater and childish insults we see adults hurl at each other on social media every day. And in hindsight, the clueless buffoonery of news anchor Ron Burgundy seems rather quaint compared to the weaponized outrage of someone like Tucker Carlson.
But somewhere along the way, McKay decided to do something that his early movies never did: He started taking himself seriously. Very seriously. His last two films, 2015’s The Big Short and 2018’s Vice were explicitly about Important Issues of the Day (the former being about the 2008 housing crisis and the latter concerning the nefarious rise of Dick Cheney). While still technically comedies, they were light on jokes and heavy on moral hand-wringing. They were, like his best work, big and broad, but now that broadness came mostly in its messaging. Vice more or less felt like McKay screaming, “Hey, war profiteering is BAD! Politicians are CORRUPT! Get the picture?” for over two hours. No matter how much one may agree with these sentiments, they’re nonetheless delivered in the most obnoxious and reductive fashion imaginable.
All of this is to say that McKay hits a career nadir with Don’t Look Up, a harebrained excuse for a satire that makes his work in Vice look downright masterful by comparison. The premise, dragged out over an excruciating 145 minutes, is as simple as they come. Two astronomers, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), discover a comet within Earth’s orbit. Their celebration quickly turns sour, however, once they realize the comet is headed straight toward Earth and will soon turn the planet into a smoldering hunk of rubble.
What is a scientist to do upon learning of humankind’s imminent extinction? Logically, the next step would be to alert the highest possible authority, which is why Randall and Kate soon find themselves nervously waiting outside the Oval Office to speak to the U.S. President (Meryl Streep) and her Chief of Staff (Jonah Hill), who is also her son. After waiting roughly 24 hours and having their questions brushed aside by various White House staffers, the pair of astronomers finally meets with the President only to be told that rather than take immediate action, they are just going to “sit tight and assess the situation.”
Randall and Kate are naturally flabbergasted by the President and her cabinet’s lack of concern. When Kate quickly pinpoints the reason for their nonreaction being that such a crisis could potentially hurt the President in the midterms, she screams at the inanity of such an excuse: “It doesn’t matter if we are all going to fucking die!” This scene, where our protagonists are driven to the brink of insanity by the inaction of politicians, is repeated roughly a dozen times in the movie to maddening effect. Rich, powerful people often act in their own best interests, as Don’t Look Up so helpfully points out.
If you haven’t guessed it by now, this comet is a big ol’ Metaphor. For what? Well, climate change is certainly the most obvious one, but given the fact many of us are still wearing masks on our face at work due to the selfishness of our leaders and fellow citizens, that pesky pandemic is an easy substitute. So is the movie timely? Alarmingly so. Does it have anything of value to add to our current moment? Absolutely not.
Rarely has a movie felt at once so thematically ambitious and utterly vapid. With his obscene runtime, McKay has plenty of time to hit as many targets as he sees fit, but the truths he uncovers read like a politically minded 17-year-old’s Twitter thread from 2013. Did you know the media is more concerned with ratings than telling the truth? Did you know wealth disparity is a thing that exists? Did you know social media emboldens people to be mean to one another? Did you know billionaires are egomaniacs? Why won’t anyone listen to the scientists? Nearly every scene in this movie consists of the main characters asking these questions verbatim.
The cast assembled here is astonishing, but what makes it even more frustrating is the fact that McKay’s script (co-written with David Sirota) doesn’t give them any characters to play but rather broad stereotypes meant to loudly shout the movie’s themes. It’s no fault of the performers who, in addition to the previously mentioned names, also include Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Mark Rylance, Ariana Grande and Timothée Chalamet. At best, they’re given a single character trait, as this isn’t a movie about people but The Times We Live In. At one point, DiCaprio delivers a monologue that is clearly intended as a show-stopping moment of capital-A acting and a cathartic outpouring of rage for his character. “I want to think that this administration has our best interests in mind, but I’m really not sure! All they seem to be concerned about is making fucking money!” DiCaprio is one of the most skilled actors of his generation, but none of the nervous stuttering or impassioned shouting in his delivery can hide the fact that he’s merely screaming what the movie has already been telling us for the past 90 minutes.
Look, a satire neither needs to be subtle nor completely absurd to be effective. What a satire does need to be is funny, and reader, there are about two brief chuckles to be found in Don’t Look Up’s entire runtime. There is very little comedic value here and certainly no new lesson to be learned if you’re an adult who’s been at least semi-conscious over the past decade. The only thing McKay is interested in serving his audiences with his latest film is a bottomless course of smugness.