Don’t Look Up aspires to be some combination of Idiocracy and Dr. Strangelove, and if you’ve seen either of those films, they’re like oil and water. One of them is a living cartoon, the other an absurdist take on reality as we know it. They’re both satires and yet they couldn’t be more different in tone and temperament. Don’t Look Up is too po-faced to work as a cartoon and too broad to work as heightened reality. Despite tonal missteps, the film mostly works in spite of director Adam McKay’s broad strokes, thanks to a strong cast who give voice to McKay’s dramatic instincts better than his comedic flourishes. It’s in these moments the picture’s climate metaphors become an important call to arms.
Leonardo Dicaprio gives a better performance here than he did in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, anchoring the film with a funny, grounded take on a Fauci-esque Michigan State astronomer who becomes famous and beloved in the process of telling the world a planet-killing comet is headed our way in six months. Once the MAGA administration, led by a self-involved Madame President (Meryl Streep) and her shallow Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill), get on board after weeks of delay, he becomes embroiled in the government’s half-baked press campaign to raise awareness and support for their cause, for their mission to destroy this comet and save the planet. He neglects his family, cheats on his wife with a morning news personality (Cate Blanchett), and finds himself compromising his ethics and beliefs nearly every step of the way. He believes it’s better to be in the room, no matter the compromise, than it is to scream into the void where no one is listening. Dicaprio plays him as a man finally getting his due after years of toiling in university labs and back rooms, and eventually as a man in over his head and exhausted at what’s become of himself and his country. Dicaprio’s midpoint breakdown on TV is a doozy, a panic attack and spark of conscience colliding in a raging monologue that recalls Network’s iconic speech by Oscar winner Peter Finch. As his doctoral candidate assistant, Jennifer Lawrence ups the ante on on-screen anxiety too, portraying a young progressive fed up with their message being ignored by the ignorant. After she too freaks out on live television, her blog writer boyfriend (Hamish Patel) breaks up with her via one glib, scathing article, leading her to give up on any crusade save for getting high with her new Gen-Z boy toy (a very funny Timothee Chalamet). The always understated Rob Morgan acquits himself nicely as a colleague of theirs, ditto Mark Rylance as a soft-spoken, eccentric tech billionaire who, at one point, says to Leo’s astronomer “our algorithms can predict how you’re doing to die, our algorithms predict that you are going to die alone.”
Don’t Look Up is at its most potent when it’s not chasing laughs. Between broad, obnoxious supporting turns by Streep and Hill in what must be their only bad performances ever, and jokes that are either obvious, obtuse, or simply unable to land, McKay’s typically brilliant comedic instincts are barely present here. The picture comes alive not when lampooning current pop culture or social media ills, but when it’s dropped the mugging act and decided to deliver us much-needed medicine amid all of the silly grazing for sharp-witted satire. For the most part, the latter never comes. There are subtle flourishes amid the blunt instrument metaphors, and they’re often drowned out by clumsy, overt attempts at evoking Trump-era divisiveness. Blanchett’s morning show anchor opens up to Leo’s sexy astronomer in bed, touting three masters degrees and more, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it excoriation of the media’s way of gobbling up intelligence and spitting it out. Small, amusing sight gags abound, such as a MAGA-style hat that proclaims “we ain’t afraid of no rock.” McKay’s better targets range from a vacuous media to the uneasy marriage of government and gargantuan amounts of money. Rylance’s Elon Musk-esque titan of industry is entrusted with both destroying the comet and stripping it for valuable parts, a frighteningly realistic subplot which places the fate of the human race in the hands of a sociopath who’s not nearly as smart as his reputation promises. McKay has been criticized for punching down to the poor, huddled masses of Trump’s America, however, he’s seemingly more preoccupied with singling out those in power trying to manipulate them. At a rally, Hill’s Jason Orlean and his mother-in-chief are trying to do just that, using the comet as a political wedge issue by telling supporters “don’t look up” when, in fact, a single rally-goer looks up and spots the very big rock they’ve been told was non-existent or non-threatening. The crowd instantly turns on President Orlean and her sycophants, hurling tomatoes and beer cans and haranguing the administration for lying. This particular moment underlines McKay’s priorities: he’s targeting the rich and powerful, as he often does, not the working class.
Perhaps the film’s greatest message comes when the United States does, in fact, succeed at launching a potentially successful mission to destroy the comet, only to renege and turn around the triumphant shuttle because a more lucrative option has suddenly reared its head. It’s a moment designed to underline the stark reality of humanity’s ability to overcome all odds when we put aside our differences and pool our resources, as well as our inability to avoid our worst vices, such as greed and a precarious relationship with self-destruction. The climate crisis is within our grasp to solve, if only we could get out of our own way. Preaching to the choir though it is, Don’t Look Up fails as a comedy while succeeding as an urgent warning to the world about the most obvious obstacles keeping us from what could be our greatest achievement as a species, be it solving the climate crisis or the COVID crisis.
P.S. McKay needs to dispense with cheap editing tricks, like stock footage clips of animals, babies, and ecosystems. We get it, the world is worth saving.