Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Don't Look Up is a messy, though occasionally interesting, plea for the truth

It's the end of the world as we know it. And writer/director Adam McKay feels...not great if his work as a writer and director on Don't Look Up is any indication. This feature uses an impending apocalyptic comet as an extended allegory for climate change, but it's also McKay offering up his perspective on a variety of hot button political subjects, including what topics get the most traction on social media, wealth inequality, white male privilege, the emptiness of daytime television, and so much more! It's a grabbag of buzz-worthy modern topics, all tied together with an apocalyptic bow. The resulting film never achieves the kind of insightfulness or comedy it wants to deliver, but some of the things Don't Look Up throws at the wall do end up sticking, however tenuously. 

Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) have just discovered something troubling. Majorly troubling. There is a comet the size of Mount Everest headed straight for planet Earth. Once it makes contact with our surface, all life on this big blue ball vanishes in the blink of an eye. Teaming up Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the trio is now determined to get the word out. But President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is just one of many Americans who doesn't really care about the comet. Mindy and Dibiasky will need to navigate the fraughtness of modern America in trying to get anyone to do something about the impending apocalypse. 

It's harder than ever to do a film that functions as a piece of ripped-from-the-headlines political commentary since the world is always changing. What's relevant today may be out of touch tomorrow. That having been said, it's still shocking that Don't Look Up feels a bit out of step with the modern political climate. The film's embodiment of the rich, for instance, is way more in line with Steve Jobs than anyone else (though he has Elon Musk's rockets and Mark Zuckerberg's social awkwardness). We've done pastiches of Job so many times before, it's shocking McKay is returning to that well. Ditto recurring jabs at reality TV, which hasn't been a huge part of the American pop culture landscape in years.

McKay's determination to a grand statement on the modern political zeitgeist has the unfortunate side effect of reducing the on-screen characters to just being like Ian Malcolm in the second-half of Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park novel; vessels for the writer's own monologues that probably should've gone on a Facebook wall. In the third act, DiCaprio's character gives a big passionate speech emulating Peter Finch in Network that talks about how "divided we've all become" that's largely divorced from the context of the story he occupies. It's meant to be a commentary on how we need to all agree on the truth in the modern world, but it needed to feel more specific to the character who was speaking rather just feeling like McKay doing his equivalent to the "America is no longer the greatest country in the world" speech from The Newsroom.

Political commentary is just not Don't Look Up's strongest suit, especially since McKay spends more time shifting the blame of the modern American world onto people enamored with cute dog videos and pop star romances. Much like the weird jab at people excited for Fast & Furious movies in the mid-credits scene of Vice, McKay has a lot more fury for people who like pop culture he doesn't like than institutional forces that inspire apathy towards real-world apocalypse's. His decision to focus on such a limited range of humanity despite the ensemble cast (no queer people and only one prominent person of color in the primary cast of characters) also hinders the project from feeling like it reflects the political zeitgeist of 2021, which is comprised of so many unique voices.

Despite these shortcomings, Don't Look Up does remain at least moderately engaging throughout. It's the upside of throwing so much stuff at the wall, something's bound to stick to it. One thing that does work here is McKay subverting the hopeful escpaist norms of traditional disaster movies (namely oens from the 1990s) with a melancholy vibe stemming from humanity's worst impulses. The camera keeps cutting around to onlookers around the globe watching on their TV's the comet and potential missions to stop it, a form of motnage familiar to viewers of Armageddon and Independence Day. In Don't Look Up, though, those viewers are always greeted with disappointment, not triumphant reminders of unity. 

As the third-act begins and an ever-increasing sense of melancholy seeps into Don't Look Up, it doesn't suddenly turn into a classic ,but I did find its commitment to bleakness at least interesting. McKay doesn't have anything truly new or exciting to say about how we're handling the climate crisis. However, just letting the camera linger on empty roads or people in the background of a shot frantically grabbing items from grocery store shelves conveys the ominous consequences of ignoring dangers under our noses better than a thousand ham-fisted lines of dialogue referencing modern political events. 

By the end, I wished all the quiet despair was hinged on developed characters, but at least McKay commits to the atmosphere and, despite his background in rauchny man-children comedies, knows better than to undercut the tone with abrupt gags.

Meanwhile, the star-studded ensemble cast, presumably assembled as a homage to 1970s disaster movies like Airport, has varying degrees of success. Despite being the most prestigious awards darlings in the cast, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, and Mark Rylance are on autopilot, delivering broad caricatures but not much else. As for the leads, Leonardo DiCaprio is always at his best playing comically vulnerable people, so he's good here, even if his biggest scenes reminded me too much of similar moments in films like Network and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Jennifer Lawrence is giving her on-screen work her all, but she has a shockingly thin character to play, I kept waiting for McKay's writing to give her a more concretely-defiend human to play. Best performances overall, though, are delivered by Timothee Chalamet and Rob Morgan. The latter actor awakrdly vanishes for about an hour of the runtime miway through the story and Don't Look Up is all the weaker for it.

Don't Look Up is a messy movie in desperate need of trims in the editing room, more distinctive political commentary, a greater amount of personality in its lead characters, and less distractingly artificial looking CG-effects. Surprisingly, though, McKay does turn out to be an effective filmmaker when it comes to capturing the woe of impending doom while his screenplay is tossing so many things out at the audience that it never becomes boring. The result is a movie that functions fine in the moment (it's probably better than McKay's last feature, Vice, overall) Unfortunately, it's also a movie that just ends up adding more noise to an already chaotic political landscape. 

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