(Directed by Adam McKay) (2021, Netflix)
It’s a mongoloid meld of Melancholia with some David Attenborough tableaux and the arrayed stupidity of Burn After Reading. Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet. Her enthusiasm, and that of her colleague, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo Di Caprio), wane when they figure out it will collide with the Earth in about six months. These boffins are babes in the wood, and when a NASA man (Rob Morgan) arranges for them to brief the White House, their deep concerns are brushed off by a distracted and chaotic administration. So the scientists do the next worst thing: they go on ‘Morning Joe’ – sorry, it’s called “The Daily Rip” – they get an even more blithe reception from the hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry), the type guests get on ‘Morning Joe’ – sorry, ‘The Daily Rip’; namely condescension and incomprehension. But President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her idiot son/Chief of Staff (Jonah Hill) have a Wag-the-Dog moment, and decide to take decisive action to destroy or divert the comet, and the attention of the nation.
However, the President aborts the strike mid launch when she is persuaded to instead fragment the comet and mine its tonnes of rare minerals. The man now in charge is Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), a beatifically smiling sociopath. The nation predictably divides into comet believers and comet deniers (with the President leading rallies chanting ‘Don’t Look Up’), but for the eventual victors, there are no spoils, when the comet falls and Sir Peter’s strategy falls apart. Dibiasky and Mindy cosy-up with their significant others and sit down to their last supper, with a singular lack of laughs. The global village burns and the only survivors set off on Isherwell’s spacecraft, to get a nasty surprise 22,740 years later. The amusing coda is enough to keep you watching to the end, but barely.
What a pity! A nice idea, a great cast, some real patches of humour, are all downed by an annoying, clumsy, contrived and simply ridiculous script, that swings wildly from farce to tragedy, sometimes seemingly unintentionally. The Director wants us, of course, to see the whole melange as a trope for Donald Trump and indifference to Climate Change, but for satire you need a scalpel and sugar tongs, not a sledgehammer and axe. Imagine if they’d persuaded Streep to do a turn as President Kamala Harris! (Now, that would be funny). She still manages to get some lame laughs but for our money, we found Jonah Hill (impersonating Jared Kushner we believe) much funnier – his clashes with Lawrence are a treat. Di Caprio is good as the smart but politically ineffectual professor, but his performance sinks under the weight of a film that insists on lecturing us whilst not making us laugh. We liked the hopeless but opportunistic military man (Paul Guilfoyle) who charges the visiting scientists for the (free) snacks they get while waiting for hours for the President. We loved Rylance’s turn as a weird and spaced-out amalgam of all weird tech billionaires. The vacuous TV show hosts are nicely played, with that ‘Morning Joe’ tendency to refer to their guest (sitting next to them) in the third person, as if they are not there. But in the final analysis, there’s not enough wit on display here, and too much trumpeting about that basket of deplorables.
In 2018, reviewing Vice, we predicted that the director would announce his next opus as a tirade against the Trump administration, entitled Evil Nazis’ Bad Hair Day. We were wrong. But not by much. Don’t Look Up contains all of director McKay’s strengths and weaknesses: there is some nice humour from the man who made Anchorman and Talladega Nights, but when he tries political satire, he’s a lead balloon. Worse, he is way out of his depth, a Great Valley High School, Pennsylvania university drop-out with a film script and a democratic socialist weltanschauung. McKay believes in catastrophic climate change, and is on the record as regarding skeptics as sub-human, or at least sub-mental. Look at his tweet responding to criticism of Don’t Look Up: “Loving all the heated debate about our movie. But if you don’t have at least a small ember of anxiety about the climate collapsing (or the US teetering) I’m not sure Don’t Look Up makes any sense. It’s like a robot viewing a love story. “WHy ArE thEir FacEs so cLoSe ToGether?””
Fair enough we suppose. But Adam, respectfully, before your next film, perhaps you might read Unsettled and The Righteous Mind, and spend the evening re-visiting – or discovering – the films of Frank Capra?