Adam McKay knows you’re angry. He’s angry, too. The writer-director partially responsible for some of the greatest comedies of the 21st century — and what is comedy, really, but a more socially acceptable form of expressing aggression — is steaming mad about the state of our nation, our hemisphere, our world. McKay is pissed over what passes for discourse, the way that news has become reduced to empty-calorie infotainment, and how catastrophes such as pandemics have become politicized to death (or 800,000 deaths). He hates social media, though really, who could blame him for that? He frets over the way clickbait and celebrity culture has infected everything. He loathes how the concept of reality itself has become a partisan issue. And when it comes to our collective response to climate change and the way that science has become so easily dismissible by so many, McKay transforms into one of those cartoon characters where steam comes out of his ears and his face turns red and he makes a sound like a train whistle being transmitted through a stadium’s P.A. system.
Don’t Look Up, the new film from this self-appointed prophet of rage that sputters on to Netflix today, revolves around a comet heading toward Earth. It’s slightly bigger than the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, and according to the people who first discover it — Michigan State PhD student Kate Diabiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) — it’s set to hit our planet in roughly six months and cause an extinction level event. The big blue marble’s entire population will be gone. Finito. Au revoir, l’humanite. This could be any worst-case scenario that we might face; McKay just happened to pick a comet. The result, he suggests, is the same whether it’s the impending destruction of our planet via ecocatastrophes or a killer virus or some external danger that threatens our very existence. We are a dumb, doomed species, too perpetually distracted and misinformed and gullible to endure. The world will end not with a bang, but with a meme and some lolz and way more concern with what pop star broke up with which D.J. than our own survival. And also, should this movie be any indication, a righteous two-hour lecture masquerading as a satire.
Whether you think the world outside your door, or at least the one being beamed and consumed through your various screens, is so through-the-looking-glass ridiculous that it renders any attempt to satirize it null and void is beside the point. Somewhere out there, someone may be crafting the ultimate Swiftian skewering of our cultural death-spiral moment — but Don’t Look Up is most certainly not that. So caught up in its own hysterical shrieking that it drowns out any laughs, or sense of poignancy, or points it might be trying to make, McKay’s screed imagines the response that would greet such dire news circa right now.
First, leaders like President Orlean — played by Meryl Streep as a POTUS comprised of one part Hillary, three parts Trump, a soupçon of Miranda Priestly and a pinch of an impatient howler monkey — would weigh how the announcement of such a thing will affect their party in the midterms. Then, when a scandal threatens her political standing, her administration will exploit the event in the name of patriotic spectacle. Once Big Tech gets involved, in the form of Mark Rylance’s socially awkward Silicon Valley billionaire, profit margins will then take precedent over saving the poor, i.e. the other 99.9 percent. Naturally, some think the whole thing is a hoax even as it visibly hurtles toward them. Meanwhile, everyone’s glued to their phones and no one’s taking anything seriously.
There’s more, of course: Jonah Hill is President Orlean’s parasite of a son, a toxic stew of Don Jr. vulgarity and Jared Kushner opportunism; Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry are hosts of a morning show known as The Daily Rip, which reduces everything to mindless feel-good chatter (and rebrands Dr. Mindy as Hot Astronomer and propaganda mouthpiece); Timothée Chalamet is a nihilistic skater who nonetheless has faith in a higher power; Hall-of-Fame character actors Rob Morgan, Ron Perlman and Melanie Lynskey play a government official, a rescue-mission pilot and a long-suffering spouse, respectively. As for DiCaprio and Lawrence, they both take turns channeling the voice of the movie’s creator, yelling and bellowing and losing their cool repeatedly over the fact that No. One. Seems. To. Get. It! We keep blowing whatever little chances we have to fix this. It’s a sentiment familiar to a lot of us, so much so that, at a certain point, you want to throttle this movie back and match it decibel for decibel: No. Need. To. Keep. Screaming. This. In. Our. Faces!
McKay’s pivot away from broad, Anchorman-style laugh riots hasn’t been the typical comedian’s lament of “but I want to be taken seriously” — he’s more then willing to weaponize irreverence in the name of going after bigger game than mass giggling. His take on the late-aughts financial crisis, The Big Short (2015) is both very clever and close to being perilously overrated; Vice (2018), his formally audacious biopic on Vice President Dick Cheney, isn’t nearly as horrific as everyone claimed and, as a comment on our unfortunate turn to the Right, is remarkably underrated.
This new work is also borne out of a desperate need to address the way things have devolved, yet it’s never able to find a way to crawl out of the tarpit of its own bone-deep despair. Our ever-metastasizng Annus horribilis doesn’t need a detached wit to address how fucked we are, but it might benefit from a Terry Southern, much less a Jonathan Swift, taking it task. Don’t Look Up is a blunt instrument in lieu of a sharp razor, and while McKay may believe that we’re long past subtlety, it doesn’t mean that one man’s wake-up-sheeple howl into the abyss is funny, or insightful, or even watchable. It’s a disaster movie in more ways than one. Should you indeed look up, you may be surprised to find one A-list bomb of a movie, all inchoate rage and flailing limbs, falling right on top of you.