Don't Look Up (United States, 2021)

December 23, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Don't Look Up Poster

When I finished watching Don’t Look Up, I couldn’t avoid asking the obvious question: How did this go so wrong? Despite a to-die-for cast and a seemingly can’t-miss premise, Don’t Look Up is a failure on too many levels and, although the viewing numbers may satisfy Netflix, it’s a shock to see such a high-profile film self-destruct. Harry Truman famously declared that “The Buck Stops Here,” and, in this case, Truman is none other than Adam McKay, although I’d fault him more for his writing than his direction. As a comedy, Don’t Look Up doesn’t work because it’s not funny. As a satire, it flops because the attempts at mockery are broad, puerile, and obvious, unintentionally trivializing the issues it seeks to highlight. As a drama, it collapses because it never makes much of an attempt to be serious. McKay rightfully earned plaudits for his 2015 autopsy of the 2007-08 market crash, The Big Short. But, when considering Don’t Look Up’s faceplant, a study of his directorial resume reveals that he’s far from a sure-thing. Yes, he made Anchorman and The Big Short but he’s also responsible for minor misfires like the Anchorman sequel and Vice, not to mention the execrable Step-Brothers. Don’t Look Up is right at home with those movies.

When advertising Don’t Look Up, Netflix is emphasizing the cast, and why not? I started tallying the number of Oscar nominations racked up by the men and women populating the screen during the film’s interminable 135-minute running time but gave up once the number went above forty. The names speak for themselves: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Jonah Hill, Timothee Chalamet, and Meryl Streep. Throw in Rob Morgan, Ron Perlman, and Ariana Grande for good measure. Sorry to say that not all of them are in top form. DiCaprio and Lawrence seem to be invested. Blanchett is deliciously over-the-top. But Meryl Streep’s attempts to lampoon Donald Trump hit all the wrong notes. She can do comedy and impersonations but not at the same time.

McKay’s goal is ambitious. Too ambitious, apparently. In a single production, he wants to satirize the current state of American politics while taking a few jabs at the media and the public’s obsession with star culture. And he goes after a climate in which someone as unprepared and unqualified as Trump can be elected President. Speaking of “climate,” that’s the main target here – how people are too stupid to come together even when their survival depends on it. Or maybe it’s the pandemic McKay is allegorizing. Probably both. Meanwhile, the writer/director’s left-of-center politics are on full display. Although Don’t Look Up occasionally ridicules the left, it represents a full-on fusillade against the right.

The satire not only lacks subtlety, it pushes the bounds of ridiculousness to levels where it works neither as a comedy nor as social commentary. McKay might be aiming for Dr. Strangelove but the feebleness of his General Buck Turgidson knockoff (played by an unsmiling Ron Perlman) illustrates how far wide he misses the mark. By exaggerating certain aspects of human behavior, Don’t Look Up takes cynicism to a level that is not only excessive but doesn’t make for a story that’s either compelling or entertaining. During the course of watching Don’t Look Up, the only emotion I experienced was frustration – frustration that the movie could waste so much talent in the service of something so underwhelming.

As the movie opens, two university astronomers, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his doctoral student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), come off the high of having discovered a new comet when they realize its orbit will cause it to crash into Earth. Its size (9 km in diameter) puts it into the “planet-killer” category, meaning that, no matter where on the planet one lives, it won’t matter once Comet Dibiasky arrives. Randall and Kate bring the matter to higher authorities, where it falls into the purview of the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan). After confirming the pair’s calculations, Teddy tries to get a hearing with President Orlean (Meryl Streep), but she won’t be available for end-of-the-world discussions until she has resolved some issues related to her Supreme Court nominee.

When Orlean finally gives Randall, Kate, and Teddy a hearing, she dismisses their concerns, opting for a “sit tight and assess” strategy. With the comet only months away from hitting, the time to attempt a deflection is draining away so the intrepid trio tries to pressure the president by taking their case to the media…to an unexpected reaction. Meanwhile, tech mogul Sir Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), the “third richest man ever to live,” comes up with a dubious scheme that, if successful, will allow him to monetize the comet (which contains about $140 trillion in mineral assets). Trusting the advice of her biggest doner over that of scientists, Orlean and her son, the odious Jason (Jonah Hill at his most irritating), opt for ignorance and denial over sane preparation.

When it comes to apocalyptic asteroid/comet collision movies, Armageddon and Deep Impact were more entertaining while being no less absurd. And, as far as end-of-the-world comedies go, This Is the End and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World were funnier and more heartfelt. In crafting the scenario and trying to cram as much social commentary into it as possible without consideration of whether or not it works, McKay the writer isn’t up to the task. Although being overly ambitious is a more forgivable sin than the opposite (a frequent failing of Hollywood filmmakers), it doesn’t necessarily make for a more palatable movie. With a generic cast, Don’t Look Up would have been a disappointment. With this star-studded cast, the classification of a “missed opportunity” doesn’t do it justice; it feels closer to a tragedy.

Don't Look Up (United States, 2021)

Run Time: 2:18
U.S. Release Date: 2021-12-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Comedy/Science Fiction
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1