I went into Don’t Look Up really hoping that it wouldn’t be the liberal version of God’s Not Dead, in which it makes a compelling argument that only people who already agree with the point of view will appreciate. And for the most part, it lived up to my worst expectations. Writer-director Adam McKay is almost impossibly unsubtle in his messaging about the climate crisis, and while that makes for an easy-to-understand movie, it doesn’t really make a particularly interesting one.
The film follows a Michigan State grad student named Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), who discovers a comet up to nine kilometers wide hurtling straight towards earth. If it were to hit, as her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) tells her (and there is a 100% certainty that it will hit), it would mean the end of human life on earth. Kate and Dr. Mindy get in touch with the White House where President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her son Jason (Jonah Hill) promptly turn them away because of the polling ramifications of this kind of incoming disaster. So with the survival of the human race in mind, Kate and Dr. Mindy make the media rounds trying to bring attention to the incoming catastrophe; they just want people to see what is about to happen.
Don’t Look Up is an on-the-nose allegory about climate change, its severity, the ways experts are attempting to combat it, the ways the rich are trying to exploit it, the ways those in power try to use it to gain more power, and the ways normal, everyday people are subject to the whims of those above them on the ladder. The film gets its message across clearly and all but has the actors look straight into the camera to say what the audience is meant to take from the film. And while I wholeheartedly agree with the film’s perspective and message, it can be difficult to completely buy into what it’s doing as a whole.
As I said, the movie isn’t subtle about its position. It almost treats its viewers like they’re too stupid to understand what it’s saying without hand holding. It’s patronizing to say the least, though it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the director of The Big Short and Vice would be unsubtle. I wasn’t totally off base with my God’s Not Dead expectations because you really get a feeling of superiority from McKay, who seems to be asserting that he’s smarter than everyone and is the only person to recognize these deeply entrenched institutional atrocities. In reality, just about anyone who’s at the very least left leaning probably already agrees with him and detests the systems that McKay is satirizing. He’s not breaking any new ground; he’s only showing us what we already know in hopes that we feel good for already knowing it.
And sadly, though the movie is trying so hard to be a comedy, a lot of it just isn’t particularly funny, which does come as a surprise from the director of Anchorman, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys (his filmography is still absolutely bonkers to me). Whereas in the past he’s been clever and cutting, here, McKay stoops to repeating the same joke about vending machine snacks no less than five times, when it was only worth a chuckle once.
Now, this isn’t to say it was all bad — in fact, I think this movie is actually kind of okay. Because while some of the attempts at comedy are painful (see: the usually excellent Mark Rylance), some of it can also really land. In his first role in a straight-up comedy (if you’re not counting The Wolf of Wall Street), DiCaprio flexes some solid comedic chops. He’s not intense or suave, which we’ve come to expect. Instead, he’s nervous, twitchy, and unsure of himself. Seeing DiCaprio like this is refreshing after so many years of seeing him do subtle variations on a single character.
But the real comedic standout is Hill, who we really don’t see enough of these days. I know he’s off directing and doing his own thing, but man, is it great to see him back on screen with a meaty role. He plays the Don Jr. to Streep’s Trump, and his Jonah Hill-ness elevates everything about the movie whenever he appears. His interactions with Lawrence — another face it’s nice to see again — are probably the best laugh-out-loud moments that the movie has to offer, and it’s the only time the comedy actually feels funny and not mocking.
But amidst the smarmy smugness from McKay and the inconsistent comedy from the cast is a core of genuine heart that McKay hasn’t brought since his Step Brothers days. It would have been easy to make this a completely pessimistic film that puts forth no faith in humanity, but there’s something there that can’t be ignored. The final 15 minutes or so in particular are especially meaningful and moving, in a way that at once can feel jarring and reassuring. The movie didn’t telegraph any of the sentimentality that it puts forward in the end, but in a deeply anguished manner, it offers up a glimpse of what could be, or rather, what should be. The intense earnestness on display in the final sequence is enough for me to forgive its many other missteps and feel good about my decision to overrule my instincts and look up.