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Don’t Look Up
Directed by Adam McKay
Written by Adam McKay and David Sirota
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep
Classification R; 145 minutes
Opens in select theatres, including the TIFF Lightbox, Dec. 10; streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 24
Adam McKay is mad as hell, and he’s not going to take it any more! Well, in fairness the filmmaker has been mad as hell for a while now, ever since he moved on from his creative partnership with Will Ferrell – which resulted in three of the greatest comedies ever made: Anchorman, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers – and climbed up to the prestige world of Big Issue Movies.
The Big Short tackled the subprime mortgage crisis. Vice went big on Dick Cheney and the military-industrial complex. Both films were delivered from the perch of satire, and both had their moments. The Big Short in particular, thanks to its layered characters and deeply felt performances from both McKay’s old comedy pals (Steve Carell) and new-found high-drama buddies (Christian Bale, Brad Pitt). But The Big Short and Vice could also be furious, frothing-at-the-mouth diatribes, laden with self-righteousness that resembled unironic homages to Sidney Lumet’s Network.
Now, with his new Netflix film Don’t Look Up, McKay is having his biggest Howard Beale moment yet: This is the cinematic equivalent of an on-camera hostage situation. Except this time McKay-as-Beale is ranting about the greatest American evil of all: Humanity.
The film opens with two low-level astronomers, Dr. Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Dr. Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), making a startling discovery: A giant comet is headed toward Earth, and unless action is taken immediately, it will destroy the planet. But faced with a corrupt U.S. government led by an incompetent president (Meryl Streep, half Donald Trump and half Sarah Palin), a lazy media industry (personified by Cate Blanchett’s Mika Brzezinski/Megyn Kelly amalgam) and the greedy world of Big Tech (led by Mark Rylance’s Bill Gates-meets-Elon Musk mogul), the two scientists find themselves portrayed as nothing more than frantic Chicken Littles.
Conceived as a climate-change metaphor, but given an oily new layer thanks to the pandemic, the film’s conceit could be sharply effective, in careful hands. But McKay knows only of punching down with meaty fists, so the result is a messy, smarmy assault.
Sure, there are high points. Jonah Hill, who doesn’t make nearly enough movies, is fantastic as a Donald Trump. Jr.-like chief of staff who takes a shine to Dr. Mindy, and good on McKay for staging a stealth Wolf of Wall Street reunion. Blanchett is wonderfully caustic as the nation’s chief purveyor of fake news. And there is a decent running gag about a U.S. Army general who pulls off a puzzling White House snacks scam.
But as Don’t Look Up goes on and on, it becomes increasingly hard to separate the solid comedy from the shrill sanctimony. Edited like an Oliver Stone movie on methamphetamines – here’s a quick shot of a polar bear on the melting ice caps, here’s a baby taking a bath, here’s a fiery protest, here’s more more more – and bizarrely unconcerned by its two main characters having exactly one personality trait apiece, the film dares you to side with the comet.
I’ll give McKay this: He is, mostly, aware of how loud he is shouting. Partway through the film, the director has Dr. Mindy embrace his inner Beale, making an unhinged speech on live television that seems ready to out-Network Network. But then there’s a visual punchline, and the homage is both acknowledged and undercut at the same time. It is a moment in which McKay wants to have his satire and shout at you, too. But we can’t listen if our ears are bleeding.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.