I’ve kind of had a hot-and-cold relationship with Adam McKay’s films. I think The Big Short is a work of genius, and I think Vice is a smug piece of garbage. Don’t Look Up doesn’t share a whole lot in common with either film, and yet it’s tailor-made for his fans. Don’t Look Up scared me to death and made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe twice. I haven’t been this on edge watching a movie all year, and I think that’s exactly how you’re supposed to feel. It may not be subtle and it may be kind of haphazardly all over the place and scattered but its tone and message are never less than crystal clear. We’re all gonna die y’all. Unless we finally come together and do something about it. Also vote in the midterms.
Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an astronomy professor at Michigan State who is shocked when his PhD student Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) uncovers a potentially catastrophic asteroid described as a “planet killer” is headed directly towards Earth. The two travel to the White House and present their findings to President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), who immediately blows them off because this doesn’t benefit her politically. Randall and Mindy then go to a very Morning Joe-ish talk show where hosts (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett) don’t take them seriously either. The two must fight like hell to get anyone to take their message seriously, before it’s too late for all of us.
As Adam McKay social satires go, this is not quite as sharp as The Big Short, but a lot better than Vice. I didn’t find the message as preachy or condescending as a lot of people are saying, and maybe if it is, that’s the point. Maybe it has to be. This is one angry film, and it’s a fumingly desperate call to action. And one people should be taking more seriously, just like the crisis at the center. Unfortunately, this could be a preaching-to-the-choir thing, as I highly doubt the people who need to hear this message will even watch it.
Leonardo DiCaprio seems miscast here – this seems more like a Paul Rudd or a Jason Sudekis kind of role, but I would say this is definitely a better performance than the one that won DiCaprio the Oscar. Yes, I still hate The Revenant. I definitely missed Jennifer Lawrence during her little acting hiatus over the past few years. She’s giving a big, brash, fiery performance and she’s about the only person of her generation who can do that kind of thing this well. I do wish there was a little more to Kate, but the purpose of both of these lead roles are kind of just to react in shock to the idiocy happening in front of them, and both leads have really, really good awards-clip monologues where they finally lose their cool.
Meryl Streep is having a ton of fun playing the most vile kind of person alive – an entertainment personality who somehow became president. I saw someone describe her as ‘Marjorie Taylor Trump’, and that’s exactly what Streep is doing here. Streep can make even the most rotten character fun to watch, but this is a little too close to home right now. And yet, Streep is having a ball, doing like a drag version of what you expect from a Meryl Streep performance. Jonah Hill is also very funny as her son/chief of staff. Tyler Perry continues to do very good work in other peoples’ movies, and never his own. Cate Blanchett is chewing every bit of scenery there is, and she’s also a terrifying hoot.
One of the film’s best surprises is Mark Rylance as a Steve Jobs/Elon Musk type figure who thinks of an idiotic plan that would allow the asteroid to make America’s super-rich even richer, that every political figure in Washington pounces on. Melanie Lynskey is a highlight as Randall’s wife, who is one of the only recognizable human beings here, even though she’s not utilized enough. Timothee Chalamet arrives late in the game, and brings a surprising amount of humanity and charm to the proceedings, which have grown very grim by the time he shows up. The performances overall, are wacky and weird and I don’t think there’s much of a weak link among them. Ariana Grande even shows up as a very Ariana Grande-ish singer. But her original song, near the film’s climax has some deeply hilarious lyrics, and of course she sings them with her trademark angelic belt, which makes the scene even funnier.
McKay has stated that Don’t Look Up is an allegory for climate change. Global warming is the meteor! We have a bunch of really not subtle cuts showing us our dying earth, in the event this wasn’t clear enough. However, this film could be about so many things. It feels like a very clear allegory about how the United States government responded to the pandemic, which would make total sense given that Don’t Look Up was made during the pandemic. It also feels like it could be about people who think the 2020 election was stolen, or about any other group of Americans who choose to live in blissful ignorance, deliberately ignoring the awful thing happening right in front of them. Again, this could be a rough sit for the people that really need to hear this kind of message. And I doubt they’ll care about it. I would like to see a version of this country where people like this are willing to learn from their mistakes, even in the context of a movie you can watch on Netflix.
Don’t Look Up is one of the most stressful viewing experiences I’ve had in recent memory. It’s equal parts absurdist hilarity and soul-crushing psychological horror. It’s a long movie that flies by and also leaves you feeling physically and mentally exhausted. It’s releasing Christmas Eve on Netflix, and this is hardly a holiday movie. But maybe boot this up in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, because this is pretty close to essential viewing. Don’t Look Up may seem nutty and insane, but everything that happens in this movie could happen. Some of it already has. And oh, what a terrifying time to be alive.