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In 1998, Earth braced for dueling annihilation events as Deep Impact and Armageddon hit multiplexes two months apart. Twenty-three years later, Hollywood is again sending an extinction-level comet hurtling through space toward us in Don’t Look Up. Those earlier films opted for earnest melodrama and big, dumb yippee-ki-kay heroics, respectively. It’s probably only fitting that in 2021 we get the end-of-the-world movie we deserve — a cynical, insufferably smug satire stuffed to the gills with stars that purports to comment on political and media inattention to the climate crisis but really just trivializes it. Dr. Strangelove it ain’t.
The movie will have a limited theatrical run from Dec. 10, ahead of its Dec. 24 Netflix bow, and no doubt some will find its easy digs at the indifference of a shamelessly self-dealing White House administration, the greed of a monolithic tech company, the vapidity of upbeat morning television and the outsize influence of social media quite hilarious. I did not.
Don't Look Up
Release date: Friday, Dec. 10
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Melanie Lynskey
Director: Adam McKay
Screenwriter: Adam McKay; story by McKay, David Sirota
Since rebranding from goofball comedies to Important Issues Satire with The Big Short and Vice, writer-director Adam McKay has specialized in movies far too pleased with themselves as they prompt audiences to feel superior to amoral conservatives, piously self-satisfied liberals and insatiably avaricious capitalists. What they don’t usually provide is depth, nuance or any sort of intelligent curiosity, generally opting to razzle-dazzle the viewer with lots of fast talk, smart-assy pseudo-cleverness and cartoonishly obvious characterizations.
This new feature takes those negatives to extremes that made me hostile to Don’t Look Up almost from the outset. The squandering of a dizzying assembly of marquee talent alone is aggravation enough. McKay drops in the famous joke by humorist Jack Handey near the start: “I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming in terror like his passengers.” Would that this tiresome doomsday whoopee cushion contained something even half as witty.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Kate Dibiasky, a doctoral student in astronomy at a Michigan college, a character defined mostly by her two nose rings and razor-cut red bangs. She quietly sings “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit” while working, but we know right off that she’s smart and serious.
Leonardo DiCaprio — whose longstanding advocacy on environmental issues reportedly was instrumental in him signing on to the project — plays Kate’s professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, a character mostly defined by his insecurities, anxiety attacks and occasional reliance on Xanax. “What would Carl Sagan do?” Dr. Mindy asks himself when Kate alerts him to her discovery of the killer comet rocketing toward Earth, predicting a direct hit in just over 6 months.
They take their findings to Dr. Clayton Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which, as the film points out, actually exists. Dr. Oglethorpe, who goes by Teddy, accompanies them to a White House meeting organized by Pentagon brass General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle). But President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is too preoccupied by some embarrassing disclosures about her shady Supreme Court nominee to see them.
When they finally get some Oval Office face time, both the vain, condescending president and her snarky, sycophantic son and chief of staff, Jason (Jonah Hill), brush them off. “What is this going to cost me?” asks POTUS, looking warily toward the midterms before she decides to “sit tight and assess,” instructing Jason to get some Ivy Leaguers on it.
McKay possibly believes that by making the president a woman, the Trump allusion won’t be too on the nose. But if the short attention span and the disrespect for science weren’t enough, the liaison with a former porn star and the obsequious asshole son desperate for her approval hammer it home with the subtlety of, well, a meteor impact.
The performances lurch even further into caricature when Randall and Kate, after striking out with a thinly veiled version of The New York Times, take their concerns about the Dibiasky Comet, as it’s now known, to morning television. As hosts Brie Evantee and Jack Bremmer, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry are in full-blown sketch-comedy mode, determined to keep their show, The Daily Rip, perky and light no matter how gloomy the topic.
With gleaming dental implants, frozen features plastered in waxwork makeup and a flawless blond flip, Blanchett looks like a refugee from the swiftly forgotten Bombshell. Like Charlize Theron in that film, she makes her character a shark, ridiculing Kate when the latter cuts in on the hosts’ frivolous on-air banter to shriek that the end is nigh. Brie also makes a play for Randall, which makes less sense given that DiCaprio has seldom been made to look more unattractively sexless in a movie. “Well, the handsome astronomer can come back anytime, but the yelling lady, not so much,” coos Brie.
Their TV appearance is mostly overshadowed by that of pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande), on the show to talk about her breakup with fellow music celebrity DJ Chello (Scott Mescudi). But Randall does make enough of an impression to be branded an AILF (Astronomer I’d Like to Fuck) on social media, while Kate becomes a viral crazy-lady meme.
In McKay’s manically busy idea of plot development, the life-threatening discovery gets undermined by a whole world of heedless arrogance. NASA’s head of damage control (Hettienne Park) downplays their findings; the FBI steps in to silence them; Kate’s online journalist ex-boyfriend Philip (Himesh Patel) paints her as a lunatic; and President Orlean adopts their plan to blow the rock off its course, albeit with a few tweaks to better serve her political purposes.
She enlists gung-ho idiot Colonel Ben Drask (Ron Perlman) to pilot the mission, dismissing Randall’s suggestion that the same result could be achieved using drones. Her splashy presidential announcement on a warship is as much George W. Bush as Trump.
The film gets so cluttered with surplus characters and gratuitous star casting that any satirical heft is pretty much steamrolled. The most prominent of the secondary players is Mark Rylance as Sir Peter Isherwell, head of global tech conglomerate Bash, whose prominence is illustrated in just about every device seen on camera. The toothy man-child is Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Mr. Rogers rolled into one, though his Zen demeanor doesn’t hide his hunger for profit, especially when he identifies the Dibiasky Comet as a potential asset.
At least Rylance’s annoying character serves a narrative purpose, unlike Timothée Chalamet’s Yule, a grungy skater dude who sees Kate as some kind of prophet, ignored by the growing chorus of impact deniers. Even more superfluous is an unbilled star playing the lead in a $300 million movie rushed into production, titled Total Devastation. The yucks continue with Riley Bina and DJ Chello’s apocalyptic anthem, “Just Look Up,” carrying on through an aftermath scene elsewhere in the universe and the obligatory post-credits sequence.
McKay’s brand of satire never merely prods a target when there’s a sledgehammer to be swung. Nicholas Britell’s jazzy score nudges the action along at such a frantic pace that it’s frankly a relief when this noisy, bombastic, numbingly broad laff riot makes way for the return of Melanie Lynskey as Randall’s grounded wife June back in Michigan. She’s by far the most refreshingly low-key character in the movie, her humanity and kindness undiminished by her humiliation. Lynskey is a terrific actor and June might even have injected some eleventh-hour poignancy if McKay hadn’t so thoroughly smothered that possibility in ha-di-ha-hah flippancy.
Production company: Hyperobject Industries
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Scott Mescudi, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey, Michael Chiklis, Tomer Sisley, Paul Guilfoyle, Robert Joy, Hettienne Park, Connor Sweeney, Robert Radochia
Director: Adam McKay
Screenwriter: Adam McKay; story by McKay, David Sirota
Producers: Adam McKay, Kevin Messick
Executive producer: Jeff Waxman
Director of photography: Linus Sandgren
Production designer: Clayton Hartley
Costume designer: Susan Matheson
Music: Nicholas Britell
Editor: Hank Corwin
Visual effects supervisor: Raymond Gieringer
Casting: Francine Maisler
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival