Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up Buckles Under the Weight of Its Smugness
It’s only in the past five years or so that writer-director Adam McKay—the man behind unselfconsciously dumb, and terrific, comedies like Step BrothersAnd Other Guys—decided that he’d rather be Aaron Sorkin. And whether you love or loathe Aaron Sorkin—or even just find his civics-class earnestness a little wearying—you can probably agree we need only one. McKay’s cautionary tale about the fragility of our Earth, Don’t Look Up,Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes the absurdity of all this can be a good laugh. But mostly, this picture about astronomers who discover a comet that’s hurtling toward Earth—and will most definitely destroy it—is so smug and superior that it inadvertently explains why so many on the right feel contempt for liberals. Instead of using the movie’s laborious more-than-two-hour runtime to allow his ideas to unfold, MacKay hits you with most of them in the first half hour. The idea of being clonked by a meteor is subtler.
Jennifer Lawrence portrays Kate Dibiasky. She is a pugnacious doctoral student who has multiple nose rings, fake red hair, and first sees the comet. Her mentor, Dr. Randall Mindy, (Leonardo DiCaprio), jumps in when they discover that the destructo-comet will strike Earth within six months. Not knowing whom to call first, they’re passed along until they reach the Planetary Defense Coordination Office—a department that, the film tells us, exists in real life—headed by the suitably serious-minded Dr. Clayton Oglethorpe (played the always marvelous Rob Morgan, sorely underused here). So far, so good. But before long, they realize the dire nature of their message is totally lost on the buffoons of Washington, including high-level Pentagon official General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle), who charges the tired astronomers big bucks for snacks he got from the White House pantry for free, and a self-absorbed commander-in-chief who’s styled rather obviously as a lady version of Trump, President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep, coiffed in lacquered mermaid spirals).
Orlean is not interested in science. The only thing that interests her is the possible controversy over a Supreme Court nominee. That type of plot invention doesn’t even count as farce anymore—it’s mild compared with the jaw-droppingly audacious acts of our real-life former President, but never mind. McKay continues to make sardonic comments and vilely misbehaved characters long after the film has collapsed.
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He doesn’t skimp on star power: Cate Blanchett plays a foxy, waxen talk-show host who turns the head of the normally mild-mannered Dr. Mindy—apparently, even he is capable of corruption, if only the sexual kind. (Melanie Lynskey plays his generous, put-upon wife.) Jonah Hill is President Orlean’s sarcastic, smarty-pants chief of staff. It is also her son which makes him hilarious. Mark Rylance plays the dumb-savant chief of a multinational tech company that tries to figure out how to make money from impending doom. Ariana Grande is the bubble-headed pop star who breaks up with Kid Cudi, a hugetime rapper. This news event has a greater impact than a rock speeding towards Earth.
McKay shifted away from so-dumb-they’re-smart comedies with 2015’s The Big ShortThe article explained how investors were able to make huge profits from the crash in 2007’s housing market. The Big Short was fleet and lively, as well as instructive; it didn’t necessarily augur a wrong turn for McKay. However Vice, from 2018, a cartoonified laundry list of the numerous sins of Dick Cheney, was one of the most depressing entries of that year’s holiday movie season. Instead of addressing the former Vice President’s nefarious deeds in any enlightening way, it reveled in its own weirdly naive pie-in-the-face obviousness. ViceThe movie looked like it was made by an astronaut who has spent the last 20 years exploring Mars. He had only just returned to Earth after finding it unsuitable. Don’t Look Up, with its suitably dismal “our planet is in trouble” message, might be a marginally better movie than Vice—but not by much. McKay’s ill-advised Sorkinization—his eagerness to prove himself a man of principles and not just chortles—continues apace. But even the eternally serious-minded Sorkin is funnier—and that’s saying a lot.