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Review: Don’t Look Up

December 10, 2021

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Adam McKay is a director who has gone from making off the wall comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers to Oscar-winning prestige pictures like the financial satire The Big Short (which was genuinely very good) and the Dick Cheney biopic Vice (which was uneven but still mostly enjoyable).

Where as those two films found a pretty good sweet spot in blending McKay’s humorous style with serious subjects, his latest movie, the “trust the science” satire Don’t Look Up which is about a comet on a crash course with Earth, can’t help but feel like a more messy collision between his two filmmaking modes.

It’s a movie that awkwardly straddles the line between his early-career comedies and late-career awards hopefuls, feeling way too goofy in some places to really land as drama and too dour and self-serious in others. What we are left with is a sprawling satire with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, as McKay takes aim at the inaction of inept government officials to stop a comet from destroying life as we know it and the public’s disinterested response to impending doom, turning it into a matter of memes and political partisanship.

There are elements of a good movie here, and moments when the film works, but they are buried in an uneven package. The humour is often broad, and, unhinged from telling a true story like Vice or The Big Short, McKay’s sociopolitical commentary feels heavy-handed. The film is meant to serve as a metaphor of climate change, though could also be about public health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s never not obvious what points McKay is trying to make. The film also feels like about three different movies in one, and starts to to wear out its welcome at a whopping two-and-a-half-hours.

The main characters are Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), an astronomy professor, and his grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence). They are the ones who discover a comet the size of Mount Everest that is hurtling towards Earth at alarming speed. An early moment when they go from excitedly plotting the coordinates with a group of students, to realizing the object it is on a course to hit Earth, is one of the film’s more effective tonal shifts.

A direct hit is almost one hundred percent guaranteed in exactly six months, and their job is to convince the politicians to act before it’s too late. But raising the alarm about the coming apocalypse is way harder than it should be, and pretty soon half the public starts to believe there isn’t even really a comet. From here, Don’t Look Up plays out in a somewhat episodic way as DiCaprio and Lawrence rub up against a variety of mostly comic supporting characters, portrayed by a starry ensemble cast.

There’s Meryl Streep as the Trump-like President Orlean and Jonah Hill as her inept son and chief of staff; Mark Rylance as eccentric tech billionaire Peter Isherwall, who is like a cross between Jobs, Musk and Gates; and Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as Brie Evantee and Jack Bremmer, the plasticy hosts of a popular morning talk show. Ariana Grande also appears as pop star Riley Bina, a ditzy version of herself, with Kid Cudi is her rapper boyfriend; and Timothée Chalamet shows up in the film’s second half as a skater kid named Yule, a bit part that he nevertheless does a very nice job with.

Some of the material does work, and a few of the individual performances deserve praise. Rylance is almost eerily good as a quirky billionaire operating with an empathy deficit, and he delivers a chilling monologue partway through. DiCaprio also does genuinely strong work here. Dr. Mindy is the film’s single most fleshed out character, with his anxiety and frustration feeling palpable. DiCaprio keeps the film grounded, including in a subplot showing the strain that his newfound status as a media darling is putting on his relationship with his wife June (Melanie Lynsky). The actor goes for it in a big way, but he is also on somewhat of a different wavelength than much of the supporting cast.

Streep has fun with the role of a bombastic populist president, but that’s about it, and Hill goes broad with his caricature. Lawrence also feels somewhat miscast as Kate. This is her first starring role after a bit of a hiatus, and her character is very thinly written, with the film not giving her that much to do from a performance standpoint. There is a running gag about how Kate gets treated as hysterical and overly emotional simply because she is a female scientist, with everyone automatically taking DiCaprio’s character more seriously. But this bit of commentary would be more effective if Lawrence’s character wasn’t written in a way that makes her come across as, well, hysterical and overly emotional.

McKay’s righteous indignation is felt throughout, and Don’t Look Up does build to a surprisingly sombre ending that has somewhat of an emotional impact, partially thanks to Nicholas Brittell’s soaring musical score, which is one of the film’s best elements. But the goofier and more over the top impulses of the film (including two end credits scenes that could have been left on the cutting room floor and feel like DVD extras), end up taking away from the story’s effectiveness as the infuriating satire that it can be in its best moments.

There are scenes that feel more like extended Saturday Night Live skits, and McKay’s directing and writing here is hit or miss (a running gag about free snacks gets stale fast). The film’s most stirring moment is an impassioned speech that DiCaprio’s character delivers on live TV. But the scene is shot and edited in a way that doesn’t exactly do him any favours, and undercuts the impact with a tight closeup of the character’s face on a monitor that I’m not sure was the right choice. This isn’t the only moment plagued by choppy editing, and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography isn’t as impressive as we have come to expect from him. The visual effects are decent if not remarkable.

It’s a film of contradicting tones, at times funny and even bluntly effective with its what would you do if you knew the world was ending and no one believed you themes, and other times frustratingly obvious and on the nose. It has enough good moments to keep it mostly entertaining and mildly worth a watch, but it’s overlong, uneven, and not as sharp or impactful as it could have been as a whole.

Don’t Look Up is now playing in select theatres, and will be available to stream on Netflix as of December 24th.

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