Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in Don't Look Up (2021)
Don’t look away. Adam McKay has something big to say, or at least he thinks he does. His latest star-studded film Don’t Look Up is his most self-aware, and a step up from his most recent work. There are funny moments throughout, though the rhythm of his humour takes a hit from an overlong runtime and some truly tone-deaf moments. The film vibes best as an anxiety-inducing drama, about those who have reached a boiling point and those who think the water’s fine. McKay sets the story in the eye of a sprawling media storm. Upon the discovery of an approaching comet, two astronomers (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) must weather an exaggerated publicity tour to warn humankind planet Earth will be destroyed. Despite the catastrophic consequences, the two are met with an unbelieving and dismissing attitude. Much to their bewilderment, and depressingly much to no surprise. McKay reiterates and mocks the real-world frustration of delusion drowning out science. The overwhelmingly passive response to urgent climate concerns becomes the running joke of Don’t Look Up. As entertaining as it can be to watch the satire play out, it’s more a chilling and terrifying film than anything else.
Don’t Look Up continues McKay’s foray into more dramatic narratives. It’s a bonkers satire and, in on-the-nose fashion, tries to challenge the question of what will it take to get the world to just look up. Do the repercussions need to be exhausted and blown to mega proportions? How much louder do scientists, astronomers and co. need to get? How long are they going to play the talk show game? McKay’s flashy cuts between a constellation of stars emphasize not only what’s at stake for humankind, but the blatant inaction from powers that be. The film opens with a discovery by grad student Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence): a comet is on a direct collision course with Earth, and there are six months until impact. She alerts her professor, an on-edge Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio), and their next course of action is to tell everyone about it. Starting at NASA with the help of Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), Kate and Randall embark on a media tour ready to share their findings with people who don’t want to hear it. They float nervously from the oval office of President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her silly Chief of Staff/son Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill), to the chirpy morning show The Daily Rip with hosts Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). Facing stiff competition such as an impromptu pop star engagement, Kate and Randall are swept under the 24-hour news cycle and struggle to gain the general public’s attention. The film plays out as expected; the more these astronomers stress how serious this comet is, the more frustrated they get, the more their pleas fall on deaf ears. What is McKay really accomplishing here? Besides repeating the obvious, he goes the satirical route and bombards the screen with enough not to look away for a second. What sticks? An entertaining cast that help carry a flawed story to a surprisingly heartfelt conclusion.
Don’t Look Up has more stars than the sky, and all of them deliver performances in ways ranging from grounded to outrageous. McKay’s biggest coup is getting Leonardo DiCaprio to co-star, alongside Jennifer Lawrence, as the anchor. DiCaprio’s performance as Dr. Randall Mindy features many of the qualities that make him one of the most talented actors. His physical comedy is delightfully coupled with an ability to fly off the handle in a feverish rage. He grounds the character amidst the surreal swirls of bullshit flying around him. Randall gets hit along the way, and DiCaprio conveys that ease of getting caught up in new experiences just for the sheer newness of it all. His performance gives a reliable anchor for the film. A lot of the characters are working against Randall’s current as outrageous obstacles.
Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Rob Morgan in Don't Look Up (2021)
Meryl Streep in Don't Look Up (2021)
Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry in Don't Look Up (2021)
Melanie Lynskey in Don't Look Up (2021)
One character on Randall’s wavelength of fed up and tired is Kate (Lawrence), whose frustration is palpable. Lawrence really doesn't get much to work with here, but she gives a enjoyable performance with a funny running joke that hits the mark every time. With an ensemble as massive as Don’t Look Up, there are bound to be actors you wish had more moments to keep shining. Two of them are Melanie Lynskey (playing Randall’s wife June) and Rob Morgan (playing Dr. Oglethorpe), both of whom have pitch perfect line delivery. They each have such an inviting screen presence that just lights up the screen. Lynskey has a great scene when June breaks down Randall’s ‘care package’ and throws it in his face. Then there's Cate Blanchett in a league of her own, her magically unhinged performance making every scene more exciting. Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, and Mark Rylance are fun yet disturbing to watch. Their characters are truly frightening. Timothée Chalamet comes in at the right time to lift the film from dragging further. He brings great spontaneity and spirit to his small role. The film has a strong entertaining ensemble, it’s just that so many of the characters are moving in such unimaginative circles most of the time. The dinner table scene in the final act is such a big highlight of the film, because it gives a seat to real conversations and breaks up with McKay’s self-aware approach. Given the obvious direction he relishes in along the way, Don’t Look Up has a surprisingly poignant conclusion that engages in emotion that's lacking up until this point.
A balancing act of tones isn’t strong enough to maintain the film’s nearly two and a half hour runtime. The sprawling story feels rough around the edges and strangely incomplete. McKay exhausts his approach to the point where it feels like the film is going nowhere, despite a lot of character-driven absurdist action going on. But at the heart of Don’t Look Up is the horror of real life, that there is so much misinformation distorting truth, that the climate crisis is considered by so-called leaders as a “sit and assess” type of situation. Randall is the main catalyst character for which a collective simmering frustration reaches a boiling point, and DiCaprio has an enormous meltdown scene that he plays with frightening urgency. McKay hits or misses when juxtaposing the horror with the ridiculous; at times it feels tone-deaf and makes light of so much. But when it comes down to the despairing moments of watching characters express their frustration, that’s when the film feels most alive. Even more so whenever Nicholas Britell’s score kicks in. The jazzy, spirited music sounds like something born from a sparkling constellation. It is lovely, and so memorable.
When the shine of the film’s bright spots wear off, the aftermath of the film lingers more unfavorably. It’s bombastic, sometimes enjoyably, sometimes exhaustingly. As the stardust settles, it’s Dr. Randall Mindy, June Mindy, and their family who resonate most. Even though June and the kids don’t have much to do, it’s the genuine emotion and grounded nature they bring to the story that gives the film a foundation. Especially for what the story builds up towards, and how there needed to be that nucleus for characters to return to. Ultimately Don’t Look Up feels like a lot of conflicting juxtapositions in one film and can be exhausting, but there are some shining stars to be found in the performances, and in the way McKay channels the act of squeezing a stress ball onto the screen.
Don't Look Up lands on Netflix December 24th.