Think about what happened there. The President just repeatedly said something that was not true. That was wrong. We just caught him in a lie. In other words, and I’ve waited a lot time to do this, we got him!JOHN OLIVER, LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER
The best reoccurring joke from late night television circa 2017 was John Oliver’s “We Got Him” bit (do watch the compilation). The first time he ran the joke, it was a bonanza. We caught the President in a lie, the President of the United States said something that was fundamentally untrue. He’s over with! Sound the airhorns, queue the political rally music, bring in the dancers, have the tiger mascot slam dunk a basketball after flying over a trampoline. Game Over.
The next time John Oliver does the bit, the tiger mascot takes away his buzzer, and the time after that, takes it away and destroys it. Nobody has ever taken away Adam McKay’s buzzer. Maybe we need to. Over two and half hours of Don’t Look Up‘s runtime, he slams the buzzer, again and again, with none of the self-effacing awareness Mr. Oliver exhibits. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence scream into the camera, “science is never one-hundred percent accurate. We must trust it anyway. That’s science.” And we know. Presumably everyone knows.
But what made John Oliver’s bit so great is not only the sensation we all felt for four years that there was some material evidence that could drastically alter a disagreeable Presidential run, but the target it put on the back of the media and social networks, where “gotcha!” headlines commanded all of our attention. Every new piece of disparaging information in a framework of deep systemic problems was going to be a burial. And none of it ever mattered.
Adam McKay makes an obvious analog to the COVID-19 crisis in Don’t Look Up. It’s also a screaming Liberal screed designed to force the viewer to empathize with and trust the scientists. It operates with the same mentality as all of these headlines. If we are optimistic enough as Liberals and are fundamentally right, then our work must also be unassailable. If we yell the truth long and loud enough, someone will listen, right?
Using untidy, large metaphors, McKay enlists an ensemble of bankable performers into a mock Richard Kelly movie. It’s Southland Tales (2006) for current affairs. It’s so benign, unfunny, and unmoving, you might forget this comes from the director of Step Brothers (2008). You will never forget that this is the same director as The Big Short (2015) and Vice (2017). “Who the fuck cares about Adam McKay?” asks Adam McKay in Vanity Fair’s profile of Adam McKay, in which he reveals that Will Ferrell will not return his calls, that his proposition for filmmaking is rigidly transactional, and that Don’t Look Up is his most personal work yet.
Don’t Look Up being your most personal work is like painting a detail-accurate bowl of fruit and saying it’s your most personal painting. It’s just a reflection. An obvious mirror at what everyone sees every time they scroll through social media. It is not profound. This one-hundred million dollar, detail-accurate bowl of fruit painting is not intensely personal. If it’s not that, if it’s not your most personal film, that’s totally fine. The worst case scenario is that the film is that — that this smugly built mirror to the media is the author’s most personal film.
The aforementioned ensemble cast is worth caring about on paper. You see Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Kid Cudi, Mark Rylance, and Ron Perlman on the call sheet and just try to feign indifference. DiCaprio and Lawrence play low-level astronomers who are desperately trying to get the word out about an incoming asteroid. Lawrence has not been around enough lately and it’s refreshing to have her back in something. Meryl Streep is the President who will not listen to them until it suits her political gains. She’s Meryl Streep but this is a footnote in her career. It’s a lot of cast. Probably too many fingers in the pie.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a fiercely reputable advocate around issues of climate change. His resume is secure in this space. It makes all the sense in the world, then, that he would sign onto this project. The prime text of Don’t Look Up, agreeably, says we just need to look a little closer at the environment around us. Just look up and see that the climate has changed. It’s a noble enough prospect for a film. Thus, the initial premise is pretty good. It’s a film that could have worked if it weren’t so bullheaded and on the nose. Sometimes it feels like we have to make a lot of noise when nobody is listening. The movie makes a lot of noise but moves so glacially, it’s nearly melted by the end of the very long runtime.
Less would be more. Don’t Look Up oscillates in tone. It tries to land on Satirical Comedy but it’s not really satirical and the dangers are too real to be comedic. There are only two good directions to go: making it a total panic-inducing reality check or making it markedly funny and an easy laugh at the gravity of the difficult circumstances in the news. Despite the wildly talented cast, composer Nicolas Britell does the lion’s share of the work, escalating tension with big band numbers that are genuinely terror-stricken and deserve a better movie. Britell was also the savior of Vice and is doing iconic work on the McKay-produced Succession (2018 — Present). He continues to be one of our great modern composers and deserves further recognition.
The breadth of Don’t Look Up feels so long and unwieldy. It’s a real bummer of a film, of course, because it is an obvious reflection of current affairs. But it does not interrogate and examine the structures that proliferate fake news, so much as repeat back what we’re already looking at in the news and politics. We know America does not believe science. We’ve lost a couple years of our lives and have the human casualties to show for it. We’re not laughing at the asteroid that is about to hit Earth. The real danger is already here. Someone take away Adam McKay’s buzzer. We never got the former President. We never got the Science Deniers. They are still here and still a threat.