There are two kinds of Adam McKay movies. Earlier on in his career, the films he made were big comedies. Recently, however, he’s transitioned towards more of a middle ground between comedy and drama. Essentially, McKay’s work has an added bite or punch to it now. The Big Short won him an Academy Award, while Vice brought more nominations his way. Now, he’s back with Don’t Look Up, the closest thing he’s had yet to a hybrid work. More so than his prior two prestige flicks, this one is going for laughs. However, it’s warning about no less than the fate of our planet. Heavy stuff, but done with his signature brand of sarcasm, to be sure.
Don’t Look Up is a star-studded affair with something to say. While the analogy here is for climate change, it’s impossible not to also see the tragic similarities to the COVID-19 pandemic in the piss-poor response to crisis depicted here. McKay and company are mad as hell, determined not to take it any more, and are using art as their outlet. The results are effective, though unlikely to convince those who need the message the most. The potential end of the world at our own indifferent hands is unlikely material for comedy, but McKay is up to the task.
Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is just a lowly astronomer and doctoral candidate. Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) is her mild mannered faculty supervisor. These are not the two most likely people to be tasked with saving the planet, but when Kate discovers a comet, which Randall confirms is on a collision course with Earth, that’s what just might have to happen. Things start off promisingly, as NASA’s Dr. Clayton ‘Teddy’ Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) escorts them to the White House for a meeting. Then, the trio wait. A day later, Kate, Randall, and Teddy finally have a meeting with President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her Chief of Staff son Jason (Jonah Hill). That’s where it all begins to go wrong.
First, Jason is dismissive of their claims, while the President is only concerned with the political calculus. When it becomes clear that they’re willing to sit on their hands while precious moments tick away, Teddy leaks the news. This leads to Kate and Randall embarking on a media tour to sell the concept of taking the end of the world seriously. Kate’s bluntness and disinterest in nonsense turn her off to the public, but Randall catches the eye of social media, as well as talk show host Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett). As the days pass, Kate becomes more and more ostracized, while Randall is taken into the President’s inner circle. Plans are put in place to stop the comet, but the outsized influence of tech mogul Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) threatens it all. In fact, as the issue turns political, a portion of America stops believing that there’s a comet at all, despite it literally being seen in the sky. sound familiar?
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence get to play roles here unlike any they’ve been asked to do before. DiCaprio plays meek and nerdy in a consistently amusing manner. The insular manner of the character is good for a lot of laughs, though how overwhelmed he is by it all is certainly very relatable. Lawrence is closer to the audience surrogate, ready to explode at incompetence. The way she makes her character feel, that’s how so many of us have felt over the past year and change. Mark Rylance and Meryl Streep are good too in supporting roles, suggesting real life people while never overtly parodying them. Rob Morgan is solid too, though he’s out of a slightly different movie, tonally. Cate Blanchett and Jonah Hill don’t leave a major impact, no pun intended, but are welcome presences. Supporting players in the star studded ensemble include Michael Chiklis, Kid Cudi, Ariana Grande, Melanie Lynskey, Himesh Patel, Ron Perlman, Tyler Perry, and more.
Adam McKay, along with co-writer David Sirota, is out for blood, and rightly so. He’s determined to shout from the rooftops about this issue, utilizing satire to skewer those who he’s rather just curse out. Plus, having that A-list cast, as well as top of the line tech work from cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Nicholas Britell, doesn’t hurt. The jokes almost all land, while the stakes are never not evident. There is, however, a sense that it’s building to a bit more than it ultimately is. Two credits sequences don’t fix that issue, though the first one has a good laugh in it. This is a good movie, to be sure, in fact a very good movie, and effective big budget comedy, though its more outsized ambitions are a little harder to pin down.
Trying to figure out the awards prospects for Don’t Look Up is a tough one. Voters clearly like McKay, but will they go for this? It could just as easily get five nominations is it could one or even none. Hopefully, bold members of the Academy will take to Grande’s tune in Best Original Song. DiCaprio seemingly should have a good shot in Best Actor, though Jennifer Lawrence may not be quite showy enough to hold back the competition in Best Actress. Elsewhere, you can never sleep on Streep, so there’s a possibility in Best Supporting Actress. The precursors will have a say here, though ultimately the Guilds will render their verdict.
Don’t Look Up entertains while also reminding you how screwed we likely all are. The more you think about the lesson here, the more infuriating the world gets and the more tragic the film is. On the flip-side, those looking at it as just satire will be entertained on that level. The movie works well, so even if it may not quite be the prestige Oscar vehicle the release date suggests, it’s quality cinema. McKay detractors won’t be converted, but fans of his flicks are in for another smart and vicious treat.