A while ago Adam McKay moved from Will Ferrell movies like “Anchorman” to political and social satire like “The Big Short” and “Vice.” He’s had a mixed results. But McKay is not droll like Armando Iannucci of “Veep” fame, and he’s not nearly as shrewd as Stanley Kubrick, whose “Dr. Strangelove” is the template for the kind of films McKay would like to make.
And now we have “Don’t Look Up.” which comes thisclose to getting it right but goes wrong because satire is a very slippery slope and drollness is something you have to control. I think McKay’s biggest problem is too many stars. Leonardo Di Caprio and Jennifer Lawrence actually rein themselves in. But the rest of them– even Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, and so on do not. There’s a lot of wink wink hamminess to this thing, the elasticity breaks early on, and then McKay is at a loss.
Not that “Don’t Look Up” isn’t a funny and dangerous idea. Lawrence and Leo are astronomer scientists who spot the comet and report it immediately. They’re brought to the White House for a meeting with Streep as a Trumpian president and Hill as her son, chief of staff who’s an idiot. Leo and Jen are kept waiting and waiting while there are birthday parties going on and other chicanery.
Finally. in a scene I liked, they explain the dilemma. Is it 100%, Streep asks? Scientists can’t guarantee anything so they say more like 98%. Streep replies, “Let’s say it’s 70% and not worry about it now.”
But from there, things swing out of control. Leo’s Dr. Mindy is shown as a quiet, serious happy family man. But when he meets Blanchett on the set of a TV show he jumps into bed with her. Like Streep, Blanchett is wearing odd makeup or prosthetics that give her a sharp, unattractive look. Streep should have known better with McKay. Mike Nichols would have pulled her in. There’s just too much goofiness to make this stick.
To their credit, DiCaprio and Lawrence do their best to keep straight faces while everyone else falls apart. They warn the others the world is coming to an end unless they do something. No one listens, and Streep, Blanchett et al are coopted by an Elon Musk type played by Mark Rylance who decides to mine the comet for diamonds and gold before it hits the Earth. Lawrence points out that it will all be worthless if they’re dead, but again, no one listens.
And so things devolve from there. “Don’t Look Up” is very long, and has not one but two add-on endings like a Marvel movie that are unnecessary at that point.
Climate change is the main target here, although I couldn’t help thinking that COVID is, too. We were warned, and did nothing about it. The president just exacerbated a bad situation. So “Don’t Look Up” could work on many levels. But after hitting a one note joke over the head it several times I think it implodes. If only Iannucci had gotten this script, he would have been a lot subtler, snarkier, and devastating. Barry Levinson hit those sublime notes in “Wag the Dog,” without nudging us every 10 seconds. And McKay himself did it in “Anchorman.” But “Don’t Look Up” does not stand up.