Rating: 0.5 out of 5
Don’t Look Up is an ugly film for ugly times. Adam McKay’s second phase, his “political” era has descended from wrathful rage to petty, condescending self-indulgence. The Big Short, by no means a perfect film, was successful due to its palpable anger, and earned frustration with the capital system. That film was often patronizing but only in order to annihilate the veil of secrecy that economists hide behind to justify the destitution of the lower class. Though the film was wordy and dealt with economic concepts that most Americans are unfamiliar with, it also had a big bleeding heart that sympathized with the struggles and victims of the 2008 financial crisis. Don’t Look Up on the other hand attempts to have broader, more global concerns. Though I commend the film for its ambition and intent to ridicule targets that are blatant as well as those that are more psychological, behavioral and systemic, it fails to find its footing both as a satire and as a drama.
The beginning of the film is aggravatingly fleet and efficient, for a two hour film the narrative does not luxuriate or revel within its portrayal of contemporary American society nor within the interiors of it’s characters, moving expeditiously only for the purposes of the aggravatingly assured righteousness of the film’s high concept. McKay seems to hate these characters almost as much as they hate themselves. The immense loathing that McKay harbors for these barely drawn caricatures induces the feeling that he’s enjoying the calamity and misery that befalls them, however, he seems to be laughing at them and not with them all the while never managing to squeeze a squeak or a chuckle out of the audience. There is one recurring gag featuring Jennifer Lawerence’s character, Kate Dibiasky, that works both in its inherent silliness and for what it says about her. Ariana Grande has the best time out of anyone in this film mocking both herself and the role of the popstar in culture, it’s an inspired turn for her. Everything else is infuriating, when this movie tries to be funny it’s bad, but when this movie tries to say something things somehow get worse.
The plot follows two scientists Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo Dicaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawerence) who discover that there is a comet on a crash course for Earth. The two are whisked away to Washington to tell the president but she doesn’t care as she’s embroiled in a scandal. The film attempts to mock the apathy of the social media era and the media circus that turns genuine crises into TikTok dances and viral trends. Though it obviously believes itself incisive, these are trite and redundant arguments, not to mention the film wastes much of it’s time skewering online culture when it’s other enemies, the political and financial elite of America are rendered in equally dull and predictable portraits. There are things to be said about both, McKay just lacks any profound insights into either and instead restates the obvious over and over again until the film’s predictable conclusion(s).
Cynicism and pessimism can be deeply funny, some comedians and writers have made entire careers based on the aesthetics and preoccupations that befall a curmudgeon. Sweetness though, is a trait that many cynics and pessimists have reluctantly, though they fear for a world in decline, they only do so because they care so much about the people within it. To call this film self-serving would be an understatement, it’s condescending, cruel and gross. Watching a group of “leftist” actors and filmmakers prance around and scream at us as if we are the ones who don’t know and don’t care our world is falling apart is maybe the greatest joke in this whole film, someone just forgot to let the entire cast in on it. He wants to hold us (the powerless) and them (the powerful) accountable without intensity which is maybe why the film lacks laughs, if this were really some dangerous, radicalizing piece of work it wouldn’t be one Netflix, for all the films intent it’s incredibly safe and as hypocritical as it’s lead character which is maybe why it’s hard to laugh, though it’s agenda is clearly delineated it’s not especially unique or profound. If McKay wanted us to laugh he’d need to surprise us too.
If Adam McKay, a man who can get a film on Netflix to rave reviews from fans and critics (though this reception has been admittedly more divisive) feels that no one is listening to him, how does he think we feel? And that’s the rub, The Big Short worked so well because it had an intimate empathy for it’s audience whereas Don’t Look Up insists on reminding us at every turn of how stupid we are, not through the behavior of the characters as a great satire would, but through it’s politics and it’s mean spirited self-aggrandizing. Some may argue that the hopelessness is self-reflexive, that the characters sense of dread and ineptitude is supposed to be indicative of our society, but McKay never includes himself in this assessment, he indicts everyone but him. More interesting than anything he says in the film would’ve been an investigation into a filmmakers role in the continuation of this cycle of apathy and dissent, but instead he leaves himself out of the “media” distinction which could be read as pretentious but it’s equally lazy, McKay doesn’t say anything about this because he doesn’t have anything to say, choosing the easy route instead and telling us what we already knew. The characters of the film are provided with a solution to their problems and they refuse it, which we are supposed to extrapolate onto ourselves as audience, but we have never been the problem, there has always been a solution, there’s just money to be made, which is a point McKay makes in a clunky and overt manner with the tech guru angle yet McKay does not acknowledge, even implicitly, his own commodification of crisis and suffering even as he shows systemically how these issues are redistributed to us so tech and media companies can profit from the deluge of content created in their wake. No matter how ridiculous an apocalypse film is, for our generation it’s impossible for it not to reflect the imminent climate threat we face, at least when he was making comedies he gave us some release from our struggles, in his attempt to be political he is now bludgeoning us with the indignities we face everyday all the while profiting from them, failing to laugh at himself even if a few of his performers (one) and audience appear willing to do so.
For all it’s inclinations towards a critique of culture and society, it offers almost nothing for us in way of insight or comedy, and when it does try, the words that come out are so vile yet helplessly bland that the existential terror is not induced from the scenario but from the notion that the writers thought we might find ourselves in this work as something more than pure regurgitation, that we might reckon with some core component of our humanity by watching this utter waste of potential, talent and finances. We are relayed information that not only did we already know but also that which we are already depressed by, relaying that knowledge to us as if we had been oblivious to it when we are already within it, the cinematic rendering of that nebulous construct of “mansplaining” that the internet that McKay is wagging his finger at seemed to like so much about a half decade ago.