Don’t Look Up is a disastrous failure of a satire. Several of its comedic pieces work well separately; however, its central satirical/end of the world trump card doesn’t find its footing. This is Adam McKay at his most unassuming and creatively disrupted.
I am not a big Adam McKay fan. First, he started doing Will Ferrell-led comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers. Then, he decided to take his comedic chops and do more “serious” work with the 2015 star-packed film, The Big Short and followed it up with Vice, a film about Dick Chaney. Three years later, he returns to deliver a satire that reflects our recent times while painting a portrait of the ignorance of the United States on quite a few topics with Netflix’s Don’t Look Up. It centers around an astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who makes a horrifying discovery of a comet orbiting within the solar system that has a direct collision course with the Earth. The problem is that nobody seems to care about it, not the President (Meryl Streep), not the news anchors (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry), nor the social media-obsessed public. So, as Kate, Randall, and Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) try to explain that the world will probably end in six months if we don’t act now, most of the world ignores her.
There are a lot of questions that come to mind when watching the film. Does it question what will make people look up and face reality without binding to ignorance? Well, not really. What was it trying to be? That is the first question that comes to mind. A dark comedy reflecting on the pandemic and COVID deniers? A 2000s-esque disaster flick? A satire reflecting on the idiocy of people? Was it all the above? It is all of them in writing, but none in execution. McKay wanted to go on a Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) meets Deep Impact (1998) route. There is poor writing, headache-inducing editing, and a narrative that doesn’t do anything original within that direction. Everyone has been talking about the themes that Don’t Look Up tackles for years now. There are some funny instances, but the laughs are lost since the editing cuts us away from the scene after three to four seconds.
It wants to force itself on being this generation’s Network so much, without being that smart, to begin with, that it affects its satirical intentions to a great extent. To make a good satire, you need to build up intelligent and creative scenarios while being razor-sharp and targeting a specific group of people or subjects; that’s why many directors don’t tend to do such projects. You can’t fill it up with gags and poor wisecracks until it reaches the end. The other problem is the film’s runtime. There is a moment in which you’d think the film will end because of the way it is being set up. However, when that scene ends, there are still 90 minutes left, leaving you baffled at what may come next. People have compared this as a film made as a cause of an SNL skit, in the way of MacGruber, but I think Saturday Night Live has way better jokes and creativity than what this has to offer.
On a positive note, it does garner its fair share of jokes, most of them coming from satirical excessiveness and a dash of cringe humor. So, technically, you are laughing at incommodity instead of the joke being humorous. There are also good performances at the upfront. DiCaprio is quite nice with his anxiety-driven-yet-calm performance and has a scene that many people have said that it’s his “Peter Finch in Network scene,” but it isn’t to that extent. It is also great to see Jennifer Lawrence back; although this isn’t one of her best performances, it brings me joy to see her acting again. Blanchett runs the supporting game out of the vast celebrity guest list. However, unfortunately, both Jonah Hill and Meryl Streep deliver weak performances, and most of their jokes don’t hit. Finally, Mark Rylance is… well… he is creepy, in a somewhat ludicrously wincing proportion, with his veneers, pulled back face, and posture.
The critical thing is that its narrative is a double-edged sword. On one side, you have satire, and on the other, you have the disaster movie. If you take only one or the other, it would be a regular film that we have seen before, and if you leave it as such, it ends up being a derivative work because it wants to work in too much stuff at the same time. There are ways this combination could work, albeit you need to be a master artisan to do as such, which McKay is not. The script doesn’t want to be subtle yet thinks it’s smart enough to place everything on the table and see how it runs. Unfortunately, as the runtime goes, it gets bloated by the minute. McKay can be funny; we have seen him deliver some very risible scenarios like the “Catalina Wine Mixer” in Step Brothers. Nevertheless, in Don’t Look Up, he can’t seem to concentrate on what he wants to do and adds more star-studded “hoopla” instead of polishing his script.