Can good satire exist anymore? The common consensus is that the medium died years ago when Trump and other prominent real life targets of satirical work grew so ridiculous that they were the joke already. Shows like Saturday Night Live have no ideas other than mimicry to the point that they literally hired a comic (the very funny James Austin Johnson) most famous for his impersonations of the former president to just do impressions. If satire really did die when Trump descended that golden escalator, why does Adam McKay keep making films that ignore that reality?
The Big Short really was a shock to people when it came out in 2015, even if it wasn’t quite the massive departure from McKay’s prior work it got made out to be. Still, the guy that had previously only done slapstick comedies starring Will Ferrell cashed in his chips on a movie “about something.” McKay was no longer the Anchorman guy, he was the auteur director that skewered the finance bros. After following up his career altering breakout with the dreadful Dick Cheney biopic Vice — a movie bold enough to say that the architect of the War on Terror was bad — McKay is taking another stab at satire with Don’t Look Up.
Usually quiet under the starlight, the astronomy department at Michigan State is abuzz with excitement upon the discovery of a massive and hereto unknown comet by PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence). Under the guidance of the department lead, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), the team works tirelessly to chart the path of their astounding discovery. Euphoria quickly turns to despair for the crew as it becomes apparent that Comet Dibiasky is on a direct collision course with Earth, giving the planet’s stewards only six months to save their home. Convincing them to do so will be the real challenge.
At the core, Don’t Look Up is a very simple allegory. Even something as potentially devastating as a world ending comet — say, climate change or a global pandemic — is not enough to get people to rally together and stop it. In fact, the metaphor is so clear that you might wonder why McKay feels the need to bludgeon his audience, one that has now lived through two years of a mishandled global crisis, over the head with it.
Subtlety is not a tool in the box for Don’t Look Up. As Dibiasky and Mindy desperately try to induce action on their discovery the find a single sympathetic voice in NASA scientist Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). Standing in the trio’s way are all the systems and symbols we’ve come to know ourselves. Meeting with vainglorious President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her unqualified son/Chief of Staff Jason (Jonah Hill), the scientists find the Commander in Chief totally unwilling to even acknowledge a threat that won’t help her poll numbers. So transparent is this commentary that at one point Orlean’s supporters wear red caps with the phrase “Don’t Look Up” featured prominently.
Satire works, or used to, because it’s the heightening of real life problems to the level of absurdity. But when the real conditions are already absurd, skewering them just feels gratuitous. Did Netflix really pay tens of millions of dollars so Adam McKay could say that climate change and Trump are bad? Everyone who would think about seeing this movie knows that already and as a result almost every joke just doesn’t land. President Orlean is absurd, but not half as absurd as Trump in his most tame rally. In similar fashion, Mark Rylance — in one of the few funny performances of this film — plays an awkward tech executive whose desire to mine the comet for minerals is more realistic than Zuckerberg’s quest to tame the Metaverse.
Maybe Don’t Look Up could have fared better a few years ago, before any question of how America would face a collective threat was definitively answered. At a time when a third of the country wont even get a shot or wear a mask to keep themselves safe, there is nothing to learn from a film doubting our ability to mount a collective response. Satire should be cynical about the truths we hold, not simply mimicking the cynicism we already feel.
While the film itself doesn’t work on just about any level, there are some bright spots. Like the aforementioned Rylance, Jonah Hill is occasionally funny in his role as a Jared Kushner facsimile. DiCaprio too mines enough depth and humor from a character whose motivations and actions are so poorly written that his ultimate consideration for Best Actor won’t be totally insane. Even Timothée Chalamet gets in on the fun, basically reprising his character from Lady Bird.
Unfortunately, even the A-list actors populating Don’t Look Up can’t save this film from its own self-imposed implosion. Obvious, exhausting plotting and signature McKay flourishes like didactic asides, dizzying edits and flashing montages of wildlife just weigh the movie down too much to be saved by performance and star power alone.
McKay’s early films worked because they were funny and delirious with a dash of mockery towards the media or the type of people who would attend a wine mixer on Catalina Island. Lately it feels like the director turned auteur has been pointing his sneering cynicism at his audiences with films telling us what has been readily apparent for years. Don’t Look Up naturally continues McKay’s recent trend of feeding audiences what they already know under the thinnest veneer of humor. 4/10