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It takes a certain kind of touch, a populist brilliance, to know that “Milk was a bad choice” could help launch a comedy empire. Adam McKay had that when he scoured through the many improvised lines of “Anchorman,” and co-created what will probably be known as the last movement of American blockbuster comedy. And he continued that touch with the unmitigated triumph “The Big Short,” venturing to educate moviegoers about the housing crisis using movie stars and furious monologues. But McKay is mightily thwarted by the larger scope of “Don’t Look Up,” a hybrid of his comedic and dramatic instincts that only dreams of being insightful about social media, technology, global warming, celebrity, and in general, human existence. A disastrous movie, “Don’t Look Up” shows McKay as the most out of touch he’s ever been with what is clever, or how to get his audience to care.
If “Don’t Look Up” deserves any award, it’s for the work of its casting director, Francine Maisler. This Netflix movie is packed with so many big, expensive names, and it often puts them all in the same room. One scene has Leonardo DiCaprio, Ariana Grande, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, and Jennifer Lawrence sitting next to each other, with Scott Mescudi (Kid Cudi) on a video feed for good measure. The amount of star power on-screen is set up for a once-in-a-lifetime comedy free-for-all, but “Don’t Look Up” uses this to make one of many anti-provocative jokes about how celebrity messiness compels us more than the death of our planet. Get used to that rise of anticipation and crash of execution if you want to be unsurprised by "Don't Look Up."
The movie's first bungled joke concerns its biggest name, Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays a low-level astronomer from Michigan. McKay takes the nuclear energy within golden boy DiCaprio, the kind that gets him Oscar nominations year after year, and makes him swallow it so that he turns into a mildly amusing Will Ferrell character. The ulcers for DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy are especially bad after his assistant Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) casually makes a horrific discovery: a comet is coming for planet Earth in six months and 14 days. They quickly want to let the world know, and realize in the coming days that people don’t care about bad news about the future.
Their initial audience for their news is the President of the United States, played by Meryl Streep. When she does finally take a meeting with them, she’s more concerned about her polling numbers, how things will look; an apocalypse won’t help the upcoming primaries. McKay begins to needle the viewer with the joke that no one cares about the end of the world as much the latest distracting scandal. There’s no respite offered from Jonah Hill, who plays a mildly funny character—her chief of staff, and sociopathic son—but is reduced to easy bro jokes. Like many characters, you can see the reflection of what it means, but the joke often ends at recognition. And because the movie’s editing is complicit in the short attention spans that McKay nonetheless rages against, it tends to intercut different framed pictures of Streep’s President Orlean with various celebrities, or hop from one scene to another while characters are talking mid-sentence.
Mindy and Dibiasky then take their message to the media, but the platform is a banter-heavy morning show (hosted by vacuous characters played by Perry and Blanchett) where the producers try to smooth their story into a cutesy scientific discovery in between the aforementioned Grande incident. Only one of the astronomers makes it out of the studio appearance without turning into a national meme—and no one takes their screed seriously—but it sets them on contrasting paths of popularity, becoming the media distraction themselves. Credit to moments when the chaos of "Don't Look Up" feels inspired, watching Leonardo DiCaprio use his Oscar-approved volume to scream “We’re all going to die” on a “Sesame Street”-like show is funny.
But of the many exciting names who are then wasted on this movie’s limited sense of humor, Blanchett is at the top of the list. She’s one of the best in the game, and McKay makes her plastic and cheap, and one of many characters who are not stretched out nearly enough in this high-art spoof. The same more or less happens to a forgotten Lawrence, or Streep, or Perry, or Melanie Lynskey, or Timothée Chalamet, as yet another grungy, lackadaisical, superficial pre-adult. And then there’s Rob Morgan, who plays a nothing sidekick to Lawrence and DiCaprio despite being just as good as them.
The plotting of “Don’t Look Up” isn't just anti-urgent, it also makes one constantly aware of what this movie is not doing. Aside from how it continuously makes you scrape the walls of its hollow comic sequences for a laugh, it does not say anything new about how misinformation became a political cause, or about how scandals are the true opiate for the masses, whether it involves a pop star or the president. It certainly has little to offer about the role technology plays in this, with Mark Rylance playing a half-Elon Musk, quarter-Joe Biden tech guru who calls the shots even more than POTUS. “Don’t Look Up” thinks it’s pushing many savvy political buttons, when it’s only pointing out the obvious and the easy, over and over.
McKay uses frustrating shorthand to create scope out of his scenario that concerns the whole world, but only when it cares to acknowledge it—the constant stock footage is so broad that it turns human existence into a generic nothingness (someone, lock him out of the stock!), and there’s little wit from its social media montages, which introduce a new hashtag after each public development, including the denier phrase that gives the movie its title. It’s an entertainer’s tired shtick dressed up as authorship—McKay has also made yet another talented cinematographer (in this case, Oscar winner Linus Sandgren), bobble the camera for the sake of feigning energy (one shot in particular looks like the camera is dropped right before it cuts away).
It’s almost irrelevant that this is McKay’s worst film yet, because there’s something far more maddening about the promise of, the potential, and the importance that “Don’t Look Up” foists upon itself. This is, of course, about global warming, and how we’re not doing enough about it—a funny premise for a star-studded comedy with disturbing stakes. But McKay has filled this parable with hot air, wanting us to marvel at and then choke on its mediocre jokes.
Now playing in select theaters and available on Netflix on December 24.
Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky
Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy
Meryl Streep as President Janie Orlean
Cate Blanchett as Brie Evantee
Rob Morgan as Dr. Clayton 'Teddy' Oglethorpe
Jonah Hill as Jason Orlean
Tyler Perry as Jack Bremmer
Timothée Chalamet as Quentin
Ron Perlman as Colonel Ben Drask
Ariana Grande as Riley Bina
Kid Cudi as DJ Chello
Melanie Lynskey as June
Himesh Patel as Phillip