Don’t Look Up Grants Adam McKay Permission to Punch His Satire

Image courtesy of Netflix

Let’s go straight to granting a measure of consent. Punch everything with satire, Adam McKay. Punch everything you can. Split our ears, raise our eyebrows, and lay every bit of shame and blame in front of any intended targets you choose. The attacks are warranted and you have the balls to bring your filmmaking fists. We deserve the cinematic moments where satirical humor rattles our psyches enough to question real-life. Mr. McKay, consider your permission granted with Don’t Look Up.

Raising his stakes and his luridness considerably from dueling TV anchors, a housing crisis, and a maligned former Vice President, Adam McKay aims a comet at the entire planet ready to burn everything: man, woman, child, Twitter handle, and political label to the ground. To both its credit and its eventual detriment, McKay’s Netflix entry sets out to push as many buttons as possible until one or more trigger the responses to make one feel icky, offended, or, worse, seen.

A woman looks down to her friend's cell phone screen.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Hailing from the astronomy department of Michigan State University, doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet that is suspiciously racing closer to Earth. Her supervisor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), does the math to confirm its trajectory calculates for a direct hit and an extinction level event right out of a 1990s movie in a matter of six short months. When they gain a NASA supporter in Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) and an audience with the President of the United States of America and sassy red state lass Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), followed by her Chief of Staff and ultra-dependent son Jason (Jonah Hill), to report this critical development, the trio are doubted and summarily dismissed.

When Kate and Randall book a TV appearance on a popular morning talk show (hosted by the jovial pair of Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett) to break the cataclysmic news to the public, they’re thrown on the air last after a ditzy popstar’s (Ariana Grande, playing essentially herself) soapbox and damn near laughed off of the air. Only after a heap of social media muck is stirred up does anyone acknowledge the space-faring threat and spin their own theories from there. It’s the splintered responses from the influencers and powers-that-be as the countdown dwindles that turns Don’t Look Up into a comedy of errors for the rampant corruption and self-congratulatory efforts that transpire in pretending to save the world.

Two talk show hosts interview a pair of mousy scientists.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Even when spun by dark humor, one cannot watch Don’t Look Up without contemplating the “what would you do” questions if they had this particular type of six-month death sentence hanging over their head. What media-fueled hype would you get caught up in? Where would your hope level be compared to your terror level? Who would choose to stay oblivious and who would be doing their scientific homework to discover and digest everything they can? Finally, when would you crack and resign yourself to your given fate? Each viewer’s internal answers are telling and represent what buttons McKay’s movie pushed to get them there.

Of course, the arc of Don’t Look Up is purposefully over-the-top, but the “Philosoraptor” memes inside all of our brains entertain the thoughts of whether this whole ordeal could really happen. When you think about it statistically, 99.99% of the living things in this world would be blissfully unaware to an approaching celestial disaster that would end life as we know it. The other 0.01% that are us humans would be too if we didn’t have science. How much would people notice in our screen-filled and entertainment-centered world of trending waves? Sh-it, you know that comet would have a parade of irrelevant hashtags.

The President of the United States strikes a questioning pose in the Oval Office.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Like most certainties, people don’t realize a wrong piece of information until it’s too late. You have to show them with their eyes. Even then, people will look for wool to manufacture if what they see is even borderline jarring or inconvenient to their supposed core beliefs. Adam McKay and his The Guardian journalist co-writer David Sirota know the caustic fragility of this social and political landscape all too well. From dozens of angles, the bulk of Don’t Look Up engages in a moral and factual tug-of-war that channels the divisive past decade that has been besieged by wild truth-versus-conspiracy debates spanning all walks of life. Essayists will have a field day connecting all the yarns across real-life and fiction.

Opening with a rib-tickling quote from humorist Jack Handey presented in a place where other movies say something meaningful or drop their “based on a true story” credibility tag, Don’t Look Up lets you know that its tongue is planted firmly in its cheek. To boot, though, that tongue is pierced with a big metal stud of mockery to either titillate or draw blood when lashed certain ways. Clearly relishing their chances to punch with McKay, each member of the esteemed cast took their turn on the proverbial piercing chair at the tattoo parlor to be properly fitted with those barbs.

The ensemble is pitted against each other by what their assigned tongues sling. DiCaprio, Lawrence, and Morgan are the triumvirate looking to prod the necessary truth, even when fear and outrage are connected to it. Across from them are alternative agenda tempters and temptresses made up of Blanchett’s TV minx, Streep’s vain POTUS, and her connected beneficiaries. That latter crowd occupies positions of status where they sell their brand of BS with bright smiles of perfectly capped teeth to go with that figurative tongue stud.

A group of people in a war room observe video coverage.
Image courtesy of Netflix

Don’t Look Up’s ridiculous material allows for excellent grandstanding moments shared between decorated screen partners and captured by ace La La Land and No Time to Die cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Leonardo DiCaprio is granted the fullest arc as the frazzled nerd seduced by the decadence of becoming a media darling. A glammed-up Cate Blanchett creates the perfect enticement to make that fall happen and the reunited The Aviator duo share excellent pillow talk. On the political send-up front, Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill dish out the most zingers to make sure their characters stay complete boobs, but entertaining ones.

When the movie peels itself away from the staged characters on public display and gets a little jazzy flavor from Nicholas Britell’s musical score, Jennifer Lawrence tries to cultivate the angle of the unjaded. The majority of Don’t Give Up stays around the top brass and doesn’t present a much of a general public POV other than the blindly following crowds and mobs that chose their social battleground sides. Lawrence’s character becomes a bit of a stray who picks up another one in Timothée Chalamet’s philosophical skater dude Yule. Her angle should create more empathy, but it wanders and doesn’t cement until DiCaprio circles back around to see the light. Most everyone else with a big name after that, especially Mark Rylance, Ron Perlman, Tyler Perry, and others, are there to be overqualified caricatures that set up jokes and steal oxygen from better characters.

Speaking of characters, there’s a line in Don’t Look Up where a shrugging realization accompanies the line “assholes will always be assholes.” That is an internal and external truism about Don’t Look Up. You have some proud Hollywood assholes doing their best to paint assholes worse than them. More optimistic audiences are going to search high and low looking for redeemable people and situations and ultimately question if this is a redeemable movie at all. They’ll come up short and that’s the dodgy rub. You’re supposed to be put off by Don’t Look Up, especially when the movie swells to be way too much. Like him and his movie or not, with its Dr. Strangelove-ian and Network-ish aspirations, Adam McKay raised his pantheon level for farce and had the filthy courage to shock as many faces as possible to get there.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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