Adam McKay started out in the field of comedy, beginning as a writer for Saturday Night Live, then making a series of successful slapstick comedy feature films, including the two “Anchorman” films and “Step Brothers.” Then, as oftentimes happens with comedy directors, McKay ventured into the genre of drama and made more topical films with “The Big Short” and “Vice.” Although these films were critically acclaimed and earned McKay much recognition at the Academy Awards, they were an uneasy mix of McKay’s talent for humor, and his bid for respectability with dramas. With “Don’t Look Up” (2021), McKay has made a film that feels like a culmination of his career so far, as it is an effective blend of his talent for comedy along with the newfound more serious side of his filmmaking.
Like popular Hollywood disaster films from the 1970s such as “The Hindenburg” and “Poseidon Adventure,” “Don’t Look Up” is a big budget studio film filled with an all-star cast of A-list actors. However, unlike these earlier films, McKay infuses “Don’t Look Up” with a darkly humorous edge that cleverly satirizes the lunacy of modern day society. As the film begins, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a Michigan State University PhD student in astronomy, discovers a previously unseen comet. After closer examination, Dibiasky’s professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) discovers that the comet is unnervingly large and headed on a collision course with Earth, which will result in the destruction of humankind. This sets off a series of rapidly escalating events involving Dibiasky and Dr. Mindy’s efforts to stop the President of the United States (Meryl Streep) and a tech billionaire (Mark Rylance) from exploiting the impending disaster by mining the comet for its wealth laden minerals.
The best satirists, such as Voltaire, Mo Yan, and Francois Rabelais, used their art to highlight the ugly side of their respective societies with outrageous caricatures of despicable characters and hyperbolic comic set pieces. While he is not quite at the same level as these master satirists yet in his career, McKay similarly paints his characters and situations in “Don’t Look Up” in broad, exaggerated strokes to uncover the teeming reprehensibility of human nature. There aren’t many likeable characters in “Don’t Look Up,” and McKay spends most of the film poking fun at the ridiculousness of modern day American society. This at times almost bludgeoning aspect of McKay’s film has alienated some critics, but it is this excessive mode of storytelling that is at the root of all the best satires, from “Candide,” to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.”
With “Don’t Look Up,” McKay takes a scathingly satiric look at the tumultuous past several years in American history, with Meryl Streep’s President standing in for Donald Trump, along with her Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) as a sort of combination of Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., as they lead the country blindly towards its destruction while a mass extinction level comet hurtles towards the Earth. McKay intercuts “Don’t Look Up’s” chaotic events with images of nature being destroyed and animals being displaced, making it readily apparent that the impending doom caused by the comet is an allegory for the devastating effects of climate change on the environment. Mark Rylance’s opportunistic tech billionaire character is an amalgamation of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, as he conspires with the President to mine the comet for the wealth of its natural resources, while encouraging the public with the logo “Don’t Look Up” to essentially ignore the destructive comet easily visible in the sky.
Aside from its themes of greed and global destruction, “Don’t Look Up” also skewers the role of the media in hastening the decline of society. The urgent message of finding a way to stop the demise of the planet from the comet is constantly intercut by media figures focusing on trivial pop cultural matters instead, as McKay shows a public enthralled to celebrity divorces and a sex scandal involving the President. McKay cleverly casts Leonardo DiCaprio against type as a socially awkward scientist, but then shows how the media re-invents his character back into DiCaprio’s usual suave leading man persona; this is another example of how the media covers up the truth. These increasingly manipulative methods of obfuscation lead to a clever homage to Peter Finch’s famous “I’m mad as hell” moment in Sidney Lumet’s Network, as DiCaprio’s character has a similar meltdown on live television.
While McKay’s previous films “The Big Short” and “Vice” also dealt with political and social issues, they were an awkward blend of McKay’s more comedic side with scenes of strained seriousness. With “Don’t Look Up,” McKay returns to the zany, sometimes slapstick, humor of his earlier comedies, while seamlessly blending in more topical sequences and themes. The film’s increasingly frenzied and inspired lunacy culminates in a sort of last supper sequence that is both gently comic, while being genuinely moving. All the performances, from Meryl Streep’s corrupt President, to Jennifer Lawrence’s intelligent and disillusioned scientist, are pitch perfect in their combination of comedy and pathos. Although at times McKay’s yearning for relevance exceeds his grasp, overall he has crafted an endlessly entertaining, carnivalesque portrait of a society that is almost beyond redemption.
- Film Review: Don't Look Up