Much has been written in recent years about how reality has become so absurd that parody no longer has the same effect it once did since it can’t possibly top it. That’s not to say that exaggeration of moments that weren’t perhaps meant to be humorous can’t be funny, but that inventing storylines and characters meant to be caricatures has lost some of its effect in the current political climate. Director Adam McKay, known for recent send-ups of real people and events, makes a questionable pivot back to fictional nonsense with the new film Don’t Look Up.
Grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) logs a troubling sight, which she reports immediately to her astronomy professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio): a comet is headed straight towards Earth and will lead to an extinction event. The two scientists join Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) in trying to sound the alarm, an effort that has surprisingly little success. Their efforts to get United States President Orlean (Meryl Streep) to set in motion a plan to stop the comet and to reach the public via a talk show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry) lead to minimal progress and an increasing realization that people actually don’t want to know what’s going on around them.
There is so much in this film that is meant to showcase and mock the way that so many live today. President Orlean is a pop culture icon whose presumably negative qualities, like smoking and having almost no interest in the day-to-day affairs of the country, are seen as virtues that made her incredibly electable. Her son Jason (Jonah Hill) serves as her chief of staff despite no apparent qualifications, a clear example of nepotism and the selection of allies rather than experts for important positions. Brie and Jack’s show contains virtually no substance, and any mention of a serious subject is quickly followed up by a redirect to more enjoyable and pleasant topics.
But the real target here is the masses, those who, as the film’s title indicates, board a campaign to willingly not look up, to deny that which is right in front of them. The politicization of science and logic is on full display, indicating the lengths people will go to in order to ensure their viewpoints are supported even if all evidence is to the contrary. Jason’s description of himself as belonging to a class of the “good rich” that working people should supposedly be able to relate to and like despite their inherent differences is an unsubtle nod to the incongruence of billionaires who refuse to pay taxes with the vehement support given to them by working-class communities who could never imagine each other’s circumstances.
There is a great deal of humor to be found in Don’t Look Up, but there is also considerable excess. McKay, who made a transition from low-brow comedies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers to much more sophisticated fare like The Big Short, knows how to dial up any situation, as he did with his mockery of Dick Cheney in Vice. By moving from actual people and history to a fully invented premise, one admittedly not that unlikely given environmental concerns and the incredible inaction of political bodies to take important, potentially world-saving measures, McKay leans into almost slapstick content, casting a broad net for his comedy that stands in contrast to the measured and effective approach used in his most recent films.
What ensues is an over-the-top rollercoaster ride, one that at times feels like it could really be happening and at others seems hopelessly random and unnecessary. The ensemble is stacked with talent, and it’s particularly fun to see DiCaprio and Lawrence step away from star turns to play ordinary people cast into far too bright a spotlight that isn’t doing anything to help them get their message out to the world. There’s fun to be had, and also misery at times when the devastation of humanity looks to be unstoppably near. Don’t Look Up represents a chaotic, potentially realistic vision of an unoptimistic future to come, one laced with too much frantic energy at every turn to be entirely satisfying.
Don’t Look Up is currently playing in theaters and will arrive on Netflix on Friday, December 24th.