Just because you “Don’t Look Up,” doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

Don’t Look Up is, by far, the strongest, most searing piece of cinema writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short; Vice) has put before us. Unlike his last two films which presented real-world events through a comedic lens, Don’t Look Up is an elseworld, a looking glass into a reality that’s exactly like ours in virtually every way but different enough so that when the narrative unfolds the audience feels distant enough not to be overwhelmed in its conclusion. In truth, rather than laughing my way through the socio-political satire of McKay’s story, co-developed by David Sirota, I was in a mixture of shock and horror until I was, ultimately, in tears. McKay may have conceived of the original idea for Don’t Look Up after reading David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth in 2019, but the ways in which the script mirrors our COVID-19 world reflected too much of the darkness and not enough of the light for the film to be riotously funny. Don’t mistake this to mean that the film isn’t worth the watch, it’s just that the message within, the warning that it contains about how political division, capitalism, and American hubris may truly be what dooms us all, is likely to be missed by the people who need to hear it most.

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L-R: Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in DON’T LOOK UP. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix ©.

While reviewing a sector of space for her doctoral degree, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet. Excited by her discovery, she contacts Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) to help confirm her findings. Their joy at this new discovery turns to ash as they realize that the comet is on a direct course to collide with Earth. After making contact with Dr. Clay “Teddy” Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office, they take their findings to President Orlean (Meryl Streep), who initially blows them off because their credentials aren’t Ivy League enough. With time running out, all that stands in the way of humanity’s future is scientific reason and political posturing. Good luck to us all.

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L-R: Meryl Streep as President Janie Orlean, Loonie Farmer as Aide #1, Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky, Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, Rob Morgan as Dr. Clayton “Teddy” Oglethrope, and Jonah Hill as Jason Orlean in DON’T LOOK UP. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix ©.

If you’re at all familiar with McKay’s recent work, that there’s a political undertone to Don’t Look Up shouldn’t surprise in the slightest. Frankly, this one is the least subtle of all the others, going so far as to employ costume design, a vernacular style, and a response to global danger that will feel all too familiar. According to the press notes, the film was originally conceived as a straight drama, a more character-centric piece, but it shifted to a more comedic approach in order to provide an opportunity for people to laugh. This means that when the world actually began dealing with global health crisis, certain elements of the film were amped up in order to make the events of Don’t Look Up, and the reactions within them, far more exaggerated. While wildly aware that Don’t Look Up is absolutely a political satire that applies a dash of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Network (1976), and Wag the Dog (1997) with a nice helping of Armageddon (1998), the way in which an extinction-level event serves as the metaphor for climate crisis doesn’t always land because of the ever-present concern of COVID-19 and its variants. Do we deserve the space to laugh? To find humor in the morbid, macabre, or absurd? Yes we do, almost now more than ever. The issue is that McKay takes the film to a place where, frankly, there’s nothing funny about how the film goes down.

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Rob Morgan as Dr. Clayton “Teddy” Oglethrope in DON’T LOOK UP. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix ©.

As unpleasant an experience as Don’t Look Up is, it’s credit to the script and cast that the darkly comic film will get under your skin. For instance, as seen in the trailers for the film, Lawrence’s Dibiasky loses her cool while on a talk show, screaming about how everyone on Earth will die. Immediately, comments are made about her needing “media training” and she’s pushed aside for DiCaprio’s anxiety-ridden yet calmer Mindy. Lawrence plays Dibiasky as someone who’s used to being ignored no matter her credentials or expertise. If Don’t Look Up were to be compared to any kind of prior story, Dibiasky is Cassandra, doomed to speak a truth that no one believes. That her character gets hung up on a morality question, unable to let go of it, speaks to how Dibiasky views the world in terms of scientific fact and reason. It’s not about good or bad with her, but how we use the information we have to either help or hurt others. If my read of her characterization is correct, the script doesn’t go far enough with her to make its point. If not, then it’s an odd thing to consistently bring up without making it matter. Similarly, the always spectacular Melanie Lynskey (Up in the Air) portrays June Mindy as the absolute opposite of her character’s husband in that she’s capable, commanding, and able to see through the bullshit of any moment. This is by no means an accident. In the same way that McKay has Streep portray the worst kind of politician (attention-hungry, self-absorbed, looking for personal profit over country), he found actors who could convey the complexity of their characters and keep us locked in, whether we agree with the characters or not. Part of this is credit to the casting and the performances each respective actor offers, sure, but it’s the script which finds little ways to explore our varying shades of complexity, even if it means highlighting our worst impulses over our better angels.

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L-R: Jonah Hill as Jason Orlean, Paul Guiloyle as General Themes, Mark Rylance as Peter Isherwell, and Meryl Streep as President Janie Orlean in DON’T LOOK UP. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise/Netflix ©.

Comedy, not the kind that asks to be laughed at, but the kind that presents a circumstance which allows space for laughter, is one of my favorite pieces of storytelling. McKay will make you laugh because all the characters within this disaster story are totally serious. They may exist in an alternate reality, but they aren’t caricatures. Not really. They’re exaggerated in small subtle ways, like a $30,000 Birken bag serving as the nuclear football or the way the film will promote itself with the hashtag #DontLookUp when it so desperately wants you to open your eyes. In a film composed of rapid fire editing featuring quite a few intrusive cuts of nature, people, or scenes of everyday life, Don’t Look Up has all of these little things so that, when you’re finished the film and you’ve stopped thinking about the big ideas or jokes, these little things will start to worm through your subconscious. Looking up is the least we can do and McKay’s film really does push the question, “why aren’t we comfortable doing so?” It’s this thought, silly as the film might be with a truly top-notch ensemble cast, that left me in tears by the end.

Oh, a little extra warning: Netflix will automatically push you toward the next film when the credits roll. That’s just how it functions. I encourage you to watch all the way through.

In select theaters December 10th and on Netflix December 24th, 2021.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

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Categories: In Theaters, Reviews, streaming

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