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Review: Don’t Look Up Is a Nuance-Killing Satire of Climate Change Agnosticism

Like Vice before it, the film too often uses satire as a tool of castigation rather than as a means of truly taking on the status quo.

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Don’t Look Up
Photo: Netflix

“We like to keep the bad news light,” says Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry), the co-host of an entertainment news show, to his guest of the day, astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up. Little does he know just how bad that news will be: that one of Randall’s grad students, Kate (Jennifer Lawrence), has discovered a six-kilometer-wide comet that’s on target to destroy the Earth in six months if drastic actions aren’t taken to divert its course. True to his word, though, Jack and his co-host, Brie (Cate Blanchett), put a light spin on the news without missing a beat, cracking jokes so as to minimize the professor’s abject terror and stifle his sincere pleas for direct action, which threaten to send most viewers reaching for their remotes.

That scene is indicative of Don’t Look Up’s constant attacks on the media and pop culture at large. It’s also in line with McKay and co-screenwriter David Sirota’s smug depiction of the American public, seeing them as largely complacent, easily distracted, and easily fooled. But while that view was mostly subtextual in McKay’s previous film, Vice, in Don’t Look Up it rises to the surface with a ferocity akin to that of, well, a fast-approaching comet.

Throughout the film, almost every average Joe is depicted as either steeped in misinformation, addicted to their phone, or simply too lazy to care about their impending doom. It’s ironic, then, that McKay and Sirota’s extensive critique of the media’s tendency to spoon feed its audience and pander to their short-attention spans could just as easily be levied against Don’t Look Up’s own light-hearted, satirical approach to this rather dark subject matter.

McKay’s filtering of the details of the 2008 financial meltdown and Dick Cheney’s war crimes into simplified, bite-sized chunks of information, while often heavy-handed and condescending, was at least in the service of elucidating complex, real-world events. With Don’t Look Up, the fictionalized central conceit, which mirrors the perils of climate change, never achieves any such complexity. And the filmmakers use it not as a means to enlighten their audience about imminent impacts to human life, but rather to berate them for supposedly doing nothing about it. The film’s satire, while intermittently funny, rarely moves beyond the surface level of its sociopolitical commentary. Even worse, it seems tailor made to preach almost exclusively to a liberal choir, and at the mocking expense of everyone else.

Shots fired at the buffoonish President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her walking Oedipus complex of a son, Jason (Jonah Hill), for their boundless greed and general indifference toward the public feels like old hat after five years of popular entertainment taking aim at Trumpian politics. So, too, does Don’t Look Up’s depiction of the private sector’s infiltration of the political world, in the form of Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), an Elon Musk-esque tech mogul who has White House security clearance because of his platinum donor status.

Although McKay favors broad strokes about governmental malfeasance or pop culture run amok over detail, Don’t Look Up’s granular comedy is more resonant. Lawrence is particularly compelling as the general voice of reason. Her ability to convey a genuine sense of urgency and dread, marked by a heightening frustration and befuddlement at the incompetence and apathy around her, makes for many of the film’s most amusing scenes.

In the funniest recurring bit, involving a four-star general who charged Kate and Randall for snacks at the White House that she later learned were free, Don’t Look Up perfectly anchors its absurdist humor to the ineptitude and moral corruption of every high-level member of the government. In moments like this, or when Jason repeatedly gets the F.B.I. to unnecessarily put a hood over Kate’s head whenever they bring her in, the film recalls the best moments from Armando Ianucci’s In the Loop and Veep. When Don’t Look Up views its targets of scorn from a macro perspective, though, it plays more often like an extended, mediocre cold open to Saturday Night Live. Like that show, McKay’s film is inspired in stretches, but it’s by and large bland, unnecessarily bloated, and incredibly self-satisfied. And like Vice before it, it too often uses satire as a tool of castigation rather than as a means of truly taking on the status quo.

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Timothée Chalamet, Melanie Lynskey, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, Meryl Streep, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Mark Rylance, Kid Cudi Director: Adam McKay Screenwriter: Adam McKay, David Sirota Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 145 min Rating: R Year: 2021

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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