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Movie Review: 'Don't Look Up'

Directed by: Adam McKay
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet
Available on Netflix
Rated R, 138 minutes

As the saying goes, comedy is tragedy plus time. But what if there isn’t any more time? “Don’t Look Up,” Adam McKay’s latest political satire, envisions a global catastrophe so perfectly final—a giant comet on a direct collision course with Earth—that the inhabitants of the planet lose the ability to take their doom seriously. Comedy may be tragedy plus time, but in a crunch, comedy prevails.

From left: Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from “Don’t Look Up.”   (Courtesy photo)

The comedy of “Don’t Look Up” is of a wisecracking, indelicate variety, often more angry than clever. Long removed from his early-career slapstick comedies like “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” McKay has settled into a more cantankerous phase of his career, a phase that reached its blustering apex with 2018’s “Vice,” the derisive and gimmicky biopic of Dick Cheney. “Don’t Look Up” thankfully finds the writer-director more focused (and more cutting with his barbs), though still flailing, following impulses in every direction.

The movie speeds along its tour of American cowardice, stitching together reactions (or the distressing lack thereof) to the approaching comet while the anxious Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”) and Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”) try to convince humanity of the seriousness of the threat. McKay connects the scenes haphazardly, cutting them off midsentence and embellishing transitions with snippets of wildlife footage, lending his apocalypse tale an apt sense of urgency. But even urgency is insufficient, Randall and Kate discover, as the president ignores them and the press depicts them as lunatics. McKay’s view of the collective American response to disaster is a damning portrait of a nation too entrenched in its insignificant trifles to react to real and present dangers. The important failures have already happened; all that’s left is for the shoe to drop.

An unmistakable allegory

The whole thing is an unmistakable allegory for climate change. In that context, McKay’s frustrations—with politicians for stalling important action, with profiteers for making billions off catastrophe and then using the money to launder their reputations, with journalists and media personalities for covering only the topics that generate the most clicks, with all of us for taking a greater interest in the love lives of celebrities than in the salvation of our planet—are familiar to anyone who spends too much time doomscrolling on social media or who feels angry and helpless watching the news. But “Don’t Look Up” is satire, not self-help; McKay’s aim is to diagnose, not to cure.

As was the case with “Vice,” McKay’s broad evaluations—of the nation, of the species—are agreeable enough (honest scientist good, cynical politician bad), but superficial. With a crowded cast and a busy script, the final cut of “Don’t Look Up” is a parade of flat characters who pop up to demonstrate the various personality types McKay wishes to mock. Which, in fairness, is often the point; to nobody’s surprise, McKay has little admiration for Donald Trump and his ilk, so he gets out his lampoons at the former president’s expense in the character of President Orlean (Meryl Streep, “The Iron Lady”), an odious commander-in-chief whose disregard for anybody other than her donors marches the human race several steps closer to destruction. Elsewhere, better-drawn characters demonstrate that McKay is clearly capable of writing beyond caricature, but for whatever reason often chooses not to. Among the film’s brightest spots are Jennifer Lawrence’s Kate, grim and irreverent in the wake of her discovery of the deadly comet, and Timothée Chalamet’s (“Dune”) long-haired Yule, the evangelical skater bro who shows up late in the film and quickly becomes Kate’s partner for the end of the world. “Can I be vulnerable in your car?” he asks Randall before proposing marriage to Kate.

At its best, “Don’t Look Up” trades in the global chaos for small surprises of tenderness, allowing its characters to truly grapple with the loss they all face. (“We really did have everything, didn’t we?” Randall muses wistfully toward the end.) It’s baffling, then, that McKay bypasses these moments so often in favor of cramming in a few more one-off gags, a few more cameos. His maximalist style is entertaining but too often toothless, setting up an existential crisis only to avoid it at all costs. Perhaps this is his final indictment of humanity, that we were too afraid to save ourselves. The sentiment, lost in the shuffle of subplots and planetary spectacle, is a shout in the wind.

Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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