Planet-Killing Asteroid for President
There’s a private joke I have when I get into my car. On the screen, the words “Depress brake pedal and push power button to start” always come up. Those words are a challenge, one I’ll always accept. If I’m in a lighthearted kind of mood, I’ll say, “Brake pedal, Transformers: Age of Extinction was the only movie to make a billion dollars in 2014.”
If I’m a little moodier, I might mention, “Brake pedal, millions of Americans believe the 2020 election was stolen and would happily sacrifice democracy for gas at $1.59 a gallon.” On bad days I’ll mutter, “Brake pedal, climate change is going to make the planet uninhabitable for humans unless we, collectively, do something, but nobody seems to care.”
Luckily, the existential horror I carry around usually stays manageable. You have to figure out a way to manage it because reckoning with it head-on is a one-way ticket to Despairville. For me, that way is writing. The act of creation is a necessary pressure valve, and it can be helpful towards continued mental health. Does anything good come of it beyond that? Does anyone actually care? That’s the risk you take as a creative. Sooner or later, you’ll make something that feels vital to you. You put it out into the world and pray people give a damn.
Filmmaker Adam McKay desperately wants people to give a damn. He began by making surreal (and very funny) comedies with Will Ferrell. McKay took a big step out of his comfort zone in 2015 with the financial satire The Big Short. In 2018, he took aim at the political system with Vice. Now, he’s laughing in the face of armageddon* with Don’t Look Up.
The good news is that astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) made the most consequential discovery in history. The bad news is that it’s likely to be the last discovery. They have found a comet on a collision course for Earth, one that’s due to arrive in slightly over six months. If nothing is done, the comet strike will be an extinction-level event, which is a bad thing.
Their first decision is a good one, which is to contact Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination office. He smooths the way to a White House meeting, and that’s where things begin to go off the rails. Mindy tells President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) that there’s a 99.7 percent chance the comet will kill everyone. She wants to know if the percentage can be rounded down to 70 percent. Her chief of staff and son Jason Orlean (Jonah Hill) takes the situation less seriously, but it’s not surprising considering he’s basically a giant pile of cocaine that walks like a man.
President Orlean demonstrates the decisiveness that surely got her elected. She declares that they’ll “sit tight and assess.” She then declares the meeting with Mindy and Kate over. Plan B is to leak news of the comet and the apathy of the Orlean Administration to the news media. Once serious and sober-minded viewers understand the gravity of the situation, people from all walks of life are sure to come together and devise a solution. Right? Right?
Kate and Mindy give it the old college try and appear on The Daily Rip, a fantastically stupid morning talk show hosted by Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) and Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett). Things go poorly when the hosts refuse to take them seriously. Why should they? Ariana Grande is going through a breakup! Things go even more poorly when Kate explodes at them, instantly becoming an online meme. Will humanity be able to come together and collectively deal with the celestial threat? Should they even bother?
Ever heard of Moxie? If not, it’s a soda based out of New England that’s been around for decades, and it features a taste that’s…um…very particular. People either adore Moxie or despise it, and if Moxie were a movie, it would be the wildly polarizing Don’t Look Up. I’ve seen viewers call it a masterpiece, witless, on par with Dr. Strangelove, painfully obvious, and so, so much more.
To say that Don’t Look Up is a bad movie is to infer that it’s made offensively or without skill. Neither of those assessments is accurate, and McKay has made a satire that’s simultaneously funny and depressing. I started off my viewing chortling over a running gag regarding snacks and ended with a feeling of hopelessness. McKay’s pacing is solid, the editing is clever, and he’s made an undeniably good-looking movie.
The worst thing I’d say about McKay’s film is that the tone is a little too pushy. I appreciate that Don’t Look Up has a distinct point of view, and that it’s a comedy dedicated to punching upwards and not down. McKay and David Sirota know that after decades of inattention and stupidity, the United States leads the world in its inability to solve big problems. Their comet is a metaphor for the climate crisis and the response (or lack thereof) to the pandemic. I get that, and I give them credit for a screenplay that’s often very funny and very moving. But that tone issue…well, imagine you’re having drinks with a very intelligent friend. They’re angry about an issue and you agree completely with them. However, they need to be very, very clear as to all the reasons they’re angry, and you start to want to grab them by the ears and yell, “JESUS CHRIST, DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND THAT I AGREE WITH YOU?” Occasionally, McKay and Sirota’s script gets like that.
From top to bottom, the cast is filled with some of the best actors alive, and they all do good work. Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t often get a chance to do comedy. It’s a shame since she’s very good at it. As Kate, her frustration (and eventual eruption) is palpable toward the people in power who can’t be bothered to take an obvious catastrophe seriously. Meryl Streep plays President Orlean with broad Trumpian notes, wondering how news of the comet will affect the midterms. Leonardo DiCaprio is the calm and reasonable center of the film. He’s mostly playing the straight man here,** and doesn’t get a chance to go as broad as Jonah Hill or Tyler Perry. That’s okay since he needs to be the “realistic” contrast to the cartoonish vapidness of the rest of the cast.
Don’t Look Up is the last of my reviews I’ll write in 2021, and the first you’ll read in 2022. Despite other reviewers calling it obvious, shrill, and smug, it remains one of the best films of the year 2021. It’s a flawed but necessary film that reminds us of one hard truth, like it or not. Sometimes there’s no justice. There’s just us.
*Is it a disaster satire? A disastire?
**I wish DiCaprio would do more comedy, particularly in light of his astounding physical comedy in The Wolf of Wall Street.