Monday 3 January 2022

Film Review: Don't Look Up

Adam McKay's new film Don't Look Up is divisive, packed with movie stars and about subtle as a wet fish to the face. None of those things is a bad thing though.

Adam McKay's Don't Look Up – which arrived on Netflix back on Christmas Eve – has been provoking plenty of discourse on Twitter in recent weeks. A dark satire that spoofs the political action (or lack thereof) towards the climate crisis, this star-studded affair has divided opinion, with some criticising its lack of subtlety and others praising its on-the-nose approach that doesn't leave any room for 'missing the message'.

Fronting the cast is Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as two astronomers who discover a comet on a collision course with Earth. The only possible outcome is the total annihilation of all life on Earth; and yet, they face skepticism and dismissiveness from the authorities, including Meryl Streep's US President, at every turn.

Soon enough, the comet is looming overhead and every half-arsed attempt to circumvent disaster has blown up in our face. There are even some who still deny the comet’s existence, even though it’s staring them smack in the face. How frustrating and yet how fucking relevant to 2022...

McKay is an unsubtle filmmaker, that much we already knew – to expect any less of him at this stage is foolishness. Remember Margot Robbie sitting in a bathtub, explaining the housing crisis to us like we’re dumb idiots in The Big Short? Remember the mid-credit stinger in Vice, where a focus group literally accuses the film of being pumped full of liberal bias?

Don’t Look Up is no different. The dialogue, in particular, doesn’t dance around the underlying point and McKay doesn’t attempt to pull the wool over your eyes with intricate metaphor or interpretative dance. DiCaprio and Lawrence literally yell down the camera, screaming the theme of the film into your face. McKay’s methods aren’t for everyone; but they are symptomatic of a writer and a creative team who are done being coy. Here’s a filmmaker who wants to sit us down and tell us to wake the fuck up.

It's a frustrating film, which is both good and bad. A feel-good romp, it ain't. But perhaps the movie feels frustrating because the characters who need to change and learn the most, don’t? Perhaps it feels unsatisfying because the plot, on two occasions, arrives at a narrative cul-de-sac created by inaction and indecision on the part of said characters?

Newsflash, that’s the point. Much like global political inaction on climate change, the people with power in Don’t Look Up are too slow to take steps to prevent disaster from occurring. Much like the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow, plot strands that start out hopeful become diluted or disappointing as their potential fizzles out or goes up in flames.

Personally, I found the film to be really effective. Some have said it didn't make them laugh; I thought they could have dialled back the gags to be honest, and really leaned into the crushing sadness and desperation. It would capture the zeitgeist, that's for sure.

Where the movie loses its way is in the home stretch, as McKay overindulges and moves through the third act and into a fourth. Once we start knocking on the door of 140 minutes, the film is just starting to overstay its welcome. 

The colourful characters are all broad caricatures designed to tap into recognisable people and media personalities; Streep's POTUS is a parallel for Donald Trump and Jonah Hill is her inept son (so, Donald Trump Jnr). Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry play glossy Fox News hosts who are paid to dumb everything down and 'keep it light'. Mark Rylance is a robotic Silicon Valley idiot a la Elon Musk; Ariana Grande is, well, essentially playing an accentuated version of herself (or any modern pop songstress). 

With the exception of Rylance (what was he doing here?), none of these performances are bad. They all 'understood the assignment', so to speak. But it's Leo and Jonah who stick long in the memory; Leo's character actually has an arc to speak of, which is an interesting commentary of the media putting scientists on a pedestal and turning them into vapid celebs, while Jonah's accentuated performance as White House Chief of Staff is just hilarious throughout. 

The Verdict: 7/10

It might not be as smart or as propulsive as The Big Short, but Don't Look Up is another biting and outlandish satire from Adam McKay. Overlong and a little scatterbrained, more focus in the third (and fourth) act would have sharpened this one up a treat.

Don't Look Up is streaming on Netflix now.

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