Wednesday, June 19, 2024

‘Don’t Look Up’ is a Satire With Too Little Focus

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Don’t Look Up is a satire fueled by moral anger but guided by anxiety and hopeless confusion. The latter keeps the movie from genuinely hitting its mark, but the film somehow manages to be a brisk watch despite its scatterbrained scope. I laughed more than a few times, and even though I don’t think they entirely stuck the landing, I appreciated the effort.

Adam McKay is no stranger to topical sharp-witted satirical comedies. His 2015 The Big Short is an excellent incisive breakdown of just how wholly corrupt our economic systems truly are. But with Don’t Look Up, McKay’s aim is slightly off. For starters, McKay and his co-writer David Sirota can’t seem to make up their mind exactly what kind of movie they want to make.

don't look up
Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate (Jennifer Lawrence)

Early in the film, a character mentions the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Another character asks if that’s a real thing. McKay freezes the movie and has text appear on the screen telling us it is, giving us some brief trivia while showing us the department’s logo. Breaking the fourth wall is hardly new for McKay; it’s something he’s grown to love.

But in Don’t Look Up, it starts out pulling stunts like this and then stops to focus on the story. McKay even tries to rehash some narrative framing devices from The Big Short by giving us quotes to set up the mood of the next scene. But much like the breaking of the fourth wall, this stylized way of framing a story is also dropped.

In a way, it’s miraculous that Don’t Look Up works as well as it does considering how riddled with problems ranging from over editing, it can’t make up its mind if it wants to ridicule or make us feel, or what exactly it wants to make fun of. Admittedly, the former is clear, but McKay and Sirota have chosen to take a shortcut rather than rise to the challenge.

Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) has discovered a comet. Her Astronomy professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonarda DiCaprio), does the math and realizes it is heading this way. Unfortunately, due to the asteroid’s size, it will be an extinction-level event. The global extinction spoils what is a mostly enjoyable movie, not because it’s a buzzkill but because it requires too much narrative real estate.

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An overcrowded scene from Don’t Look Up

Don’t Look Up is about climate change and our failure to do even the bare minimum to combat our own extinction. It’s a fertile ground for satirizing. Yet, Sirota and McKay choose to use a planet-killing comet as a stand-in for climate change, and that’s where it all starts to break down. Unlike his other movies, McKay doesn’t aim for the system so much as our culture’s pervasive mentality of apathy and distraction- specifically American culture. As a result, it sometimes feels like the movie doesn’t quite know what to do with its anger.

The anger at times feels less like McKay, and his collaborators venting and instead comes off arrogant and self-important. Scenes such as when Kate and Randall go on a popular morning show, “The Daily Rip” hosted by Brie (an almost unrecognizable Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry) to warn people of the danger. The government has chosen to sideline the issue to focus on mid-terms and a looming scandal dealing with a supreme court nominee.

McKay and Sirota use “The Daily Rip” as a sort of catch-all of how much of American television is incapable of tackling serious issues, especially when they claim to be doing just that. Later in the movie, Randall reaches his breaking point and demands the hosts treat the situation with some seriousness. “Not everything has to be pleasant!”

These scenes are good, but they lose their edge because the film also deals with the Trumpian President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her venal Chief-Of Staff son Jason (Jonah Hill). Once again, because McKay and Sirorta are trying to hit everything, their aim becomes too vast. As a result, the political humor doesn’t quite land, namely because that’s a whole movie in itself. Over and over, the epic scale of Don’t Look Up often becomes the very thing that dilutes its venom.

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Front: Jason (Jonah Hill) and President Orlean (Meryl Streep) Back: Randall (DiCaprio) and Kate (Lawrence)

The jokes that do work are often unrelated to the grand scale catastrophe, often stemming from little moments. My favorite joke in the movie is a running gag involving Lawrence’s Kate and a three-star Pentagon General played by Paul Guilfoyle. The joke is on its face, absolutely nonsensical, and yet I found myself able to relate to both the incident and Kate’s obsession with it. The joke works, not just because of Lawrence’s comedic timing, which is diamond-sharp here, but from the simple observation of “who knows why anyone does anything.”

Lawrence and DiCaprio have an excellent rapport, the cranky cynic and the anxiety-ridden idealist who gets lost along the way. But Lawrence is consistently the funniest and most spot-on were her criticisms. Such as when late in the film, she’s working at a grocery store and meets Yule (Timothee Chalmaet), a shoplifter, and she does nothing to stop him. Why would she? The world is ending; why would she care?

Kate’s storyline works because it’s steeped in the minute of a life lived in these, at times impossible to comprehend times. Unfortunately, the bigger stuff doesn’t work because McKay doesn’t go absurd enough for it; reality has him beat, and he can’t bring himself to go even more fantastic for fear of being unbelievable. Except having gone from fascism to middle management, I find my suspension of disbelief has an almost frightening elastic quality.

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Randall (DiCaprio) and Kate (Lawrence)

The political stuff is a mixed bag with Jonah Hill being Lawrence’s only equal in terms of “I can’t think of anyone else in this role.” Hill’s sycophantic, venal, shallow Trump offspring-inspired caricature is hilarious. The back and forth he and Lawrence’s Kate have throughout the movie is some of the film’s best comedic work. 

But all of this is washed away in an ugly-looking film assembled to an irritating hyperactive rhythm. McKay and his cameraman Linus Sandgren have shot a cheap-looking disaster movie. It is remarkable how there’s not an exciting frame in this entire movie except for a few scenes. The visual drabness only enhances the script’s issues leaving us with a film dragged along by the talent of its star-studded cast.

Don’t Look Up probably would have worked better if it narrowed its scope, allowing a sharper blade and a finer cut. However, the jokes that worked are so good that you wish the movie was just a little better. 

Images courtesy of Netflix

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