Nearly two years after the onset of a global pandemic, there have been plenty of films made in a post-COVID world, and a brave and/or foolhardy few have even addressed it directly. But Don’t Look Up is the highest-profile movie so far to feel like a true product of the pandemic.
Writer-director Adam McKay drafted his screenplay before early 2020, using a giant comet hurtling toward Earth as a stand-in for catastrophic climate change, not a virus. Yet the movie was shot last fall, decidedly mid-pandemic, and the rational pleas of astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) for the public to trust science and understand the seriousness of the coming disaster will sound uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has goggled in disbelief at COVID and/or vaccine denialism. Moreover, the harried, bleary, gallows-satire tone of the movie feels very much of this moment, when any small victory is threatened to be undone or actively smashed to bits by some combination of greed, technology, or public indifference. Accordingly, McKay’s film is fascinating to watch and also, in part, utter hell.
An opening epigraph from legendary Saturday Night Live scribe Jack Handey signals that despite his bleak assessment of the world, McKay—director of some of the finest smart-dumb comedies of our young century—might be ready to laugh again after the irreverent, antsy, half-comedic likes of The Big Short and Vice. This signal quickly becomes mixed; McKay has eased up on the handheld camerawork and frantic cutaways without abandoning them completely, and he’s become fonder still of shooting his lead actors in tight, anxious close-ups.
The anxiety is especially vivid because Randall and Kate aren’t satirical characters. They’re rational thinkers who unwittingly stumble into a Dr. Strangelove type of situation when they discover mankind’s impending doom, and team up with Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) to report their findings to President Orlean (Meryl Streep). Her first reaction: Could the scientists revise the probability of death from 99.7% to about 70%? Her second: “Sit tight and assess,” while the planet has six months to live.
The scene plays out a bit like a sketch from SNL—neither a classic nor the absolute dregs. The same is true of another illustrating the scientists’ backup plan, an attempt to alert the media by leaking their story and guesting on a vapid morning chat show, only to receive significantly less social media attention than the romantic travails of a pop megastar (Ariana Grande, playing not-quite-herself). Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry play the hosts, in more ways than one. Almost everyone in McKay’s impossibly starry cast feels like they’re jumping into the SNL host role, game for some light comedic lifting while waiting for the pros to show up and goose the laughs.
Not even the biggest names on the marquee can escape that sometimes-dire waiting game. Lawrence and DiCaprio pencil in some convincing bits of characterization, but they have the unenviable task of portraying sane people, adrift in swamps of idiocy, without much room to develop. DiCaprio’s Randall tries to play nicer, and work within the impossible system to help solve this problem, which threatens his integrity. Kate can’t contain her rage and disbelief, and Lawrence gets a couple of solidly funny running gags to mitigate her character’s genuine anguish. Strange, though, how much funnier both actors have been in other, less overtly comedic movies.
The one actor who nails McKay’s tone—or, perhaps more accurately, finds a funnier and less despairing tone to play—is Jonah Hill. He’s positioned as a hateful presidential spawn in the style of Donald Trump Jr.: sneering, coke-addled, in love with his own unqualified bullying. (Hill has said that his notion of the character was “What if Fyre Festival was a person?”) Streep’s corresponding Trump analog isn’t much of one; mostly she answers the unasked and unworkable question of what a venal and stupid president would be like if he were also somehow latter-day Meryl Streep. Hill, though, captures the entitled, empty-headed viciousness of the wealthy elites the film tries to eviscerate. He feels like a remnant from one of McKay’s real comedies, where banal dinner-table chatter turns into accidental treatises of selfishness, pettiness, and American failings.
When some of the characters in Don’t Look Up sit down to dinner late in the film, McKay has different aims in mind—and on its own, the scene makes a compelling, even chilling companion piece to his broader work. As part of this lurching 145-minute catch-all for the ills of American society, though, it’s as exhausting as any number of media-blitz distractions the film wants to decry. Don’t Look Up jabs around omnidirectionally, and some of the most gleefully ridiculous jokes land: There’s an inspired runner about an increasingly scandal-plagued Supreme Court nominee, for example, and another in which politicians and voters alike absurdly declare their allegiance to “the jobs the comet will bring.” That line of thinking comes courtesy of a powerful and socially off-putting tech CEO played by Mark Rylance, softly savaging every tech-weirdo with delusions of astronaut grandeur.
But more often, McKay is wondering aloud if it’s too late for all of us, through a movie that’s ultimately too weary and especially too angry to go after every possible laugh—especially those that might involve quotidian details rather than potshots at inane social media. Don’t Look Up is both types of blunt: It makes no bones about exactly what the filmmakers think of climate-change deniers and social-media distractions, and it repeatedly blunts the impact of its satire by calling its shots early, often, and loudly.
So is it churlish to wish this end-of-the-world warning with a Network-style rant from one of the world’s biggest movie stars had more consistent joke quality? When the movie occasionally drifts back toward character comedy, as in scenes where Kate hangs out with a dopey skater bro (Timothée Chalamet—seriously, everyone is in this thing), it’s possible to glimpse a way forward for McKay, toward a style of dramedy where the actors (and, for that matter, the dialogue) might have room to breathe and regain some semblance of looseness without choking on all the hectoring. McKay is one of the few comedy directors who knows how to shape improv into real scenes, something that feels decidedly lacking in this more serious-minded manifesto. What makes Don’t Look Up such a movie of the moment also makes it less of a functional movie at all, and more of a cranky, doomy, occasionally funny headspace.