In his latest venture Don’t Look Up, McKay comes pretty close to heckling his audience to take note of the climate crisis, only to find them distracted by a video of a kitten and a baby on their smartphone.
Director Adam McKay has given up on mankind. Known for his brazen satires starring Will Ferrell during the 2000s, McKay discovered a new momentum in the last decade marrying ‘topical films’ with his subversive, mockumentary style. Beginning with The Big Short (2015), McKay adapted Michael Lewis’s book of the same name and offered a wildly entertaining explainer (of sorts) on America’s 2008 financial crisis. Since then, McKay has dwelled on the life of politician Dick Cheney, in the anti-biopic Vice (2018), featuring a hilariously abrupt ‘Hollywood end credit scene’ written into the middle of the film. He’s also an executive producer on the HBO satire, Succession, about the inner machinations of the pathologically backstabbing Roy family.
In his latest venture Don’t Look Up, McKay comes up with his own version of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove. He comes pretty close to heckling his audience to take note of the climate crisis, only to find them distracted by a video of a kitten and a baby on their smartphone.
The premise is classically Hollywood too. A comet is hurtling towards “mother earth”, and thus two astronomers are making their way around America in the hope to draw attention towards it. The sad bit? There’s no Bruce Willis or Mark Wahlberg insight. PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Prof Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) discovering that this comet could potentially be a ‘planet-killer’, are first greeted by a tragically unresponsive White House, and then laughed out of a popular morning show. Both characters have meltdowns on national TV when they realise how even their most exhaustive and detailed studies on the matter can’t bring the media, the political establishment, and consequently the people, out of their denial of an impending apocalypse. So, McKay does what he does best: he mines all this for laughs.
Dibiasky’s (Lawrence) first reaction to discovering a comet that could inflict an extinction-level event, is that of panic. And that is soon followed by “I need to get high!” DiCaprio as Dr. Mindy is McKay’s possible stand-in for Anthony Fauci, who was recently lauded and trolled for his efforts during the pandemic. Long after Dibiasky’s “meltdown” on national TV has rendered her as the subject of memes (doesn’t seem too far-fetched in the current climate) and she’s been taken ‘off the grid’, DiCaprio’s Mindy tries to work from within the system. It’s also because he’s taken in by the accolades coming his way after a lifetime of anonymity. He’s seduced into the glitz of it after star anchor Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) expresses interest in him. It’s only a matter of time before he comes to terms with how far he’s gone from his roots, because of the frivolous titles bestowed upon him like “America’s hottest doctor” and “AILF” (decipher it yourself).
Don’t Look Up’s credits read like the line-up of an all-star team. Meryl Streep, playing a concoction of Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and basically, every other hoarse-voiced Republican on TV, brings her trademark light touch to scenes as America’s clueless commander-in-chief. Jonah Hill, as Jason Orlean, the White House chief-of-staff and also the President’s son, seems to be modeled on both Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. There are terrific cameos by Ariana Grande and Scott Mescudi, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, whose break-up gets more airtime than the story about the end of the world. It is, however, Mark Rylance as a socially awkward and creepily un-feeling CEO of a Big Tech corporation (a mix of Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Tim Cook, etc.) walks away with the film. Rylance does this laugh that is completely deprived of humanity or feeling and is probably the best thing about Don’t Look Up.
It’s a tall order, writing satire around American politics and the electronic media in 2021. But McKay does his best, from a story about the president sharing nudes with a ‘controversial’ Supreme Court appointee to Hollywood going on to produce a film about the end of the world made with a budget of $300 million. It’s called Total Devastation (sounding eerily like a Gerard Butler movie directed by Roland Emmerich) and stars Hollywood heartthrob, Devin Peters (Chris Evans in a cameo). McKay does, however, hit a wall (something most films/shows about humanising ‘red America’ have encountered recently) is that the parts aren’t interesting beyond a point. There isn’t deeper psychology behind their racist, xenophobic, ignorant views apart from their need to remain ‘in power’ in their version of ancient hierarchy devised by themselves.
Where the film truly rises from its status as a B+ comedy, is its sombre final stretch. Always looking to replicate the styles of Hollywood masters in an ironic manner, this final segment of McKay’s film has this unbridled, unironic Terrence Malick energy to it. As McKay boils down to the *actual* end of the world, some resort to drinking in the most despondent way, while some go back to being with their families for an impromptu Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone expresses gratitude and the world is blown to smithereens, leaving us with a rather hopeless thought: not all jokes have punchlines.
Don’t Look Up is streaming on Netflix.
Tatsam Mukherjee has been working as a film journalist since 2016. He is based out of Delhi NCR.