'Don't Look Up': A Political Allegory That Wastes Its Potential
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Of all the words you might use to describe Adam McKay's filmmaking style, "subtle" would not be one of them. While he made a name for himself making big studio comedies with Will Ferrell, he has since become more confrontational in the way he approaches his films, and has taken on more serious topics. He is a rather showy director, and presents his films in a rather in-your-face type of way that attracts some, but repels others. I personally find myself somewhere in the middle when it comes to McKay, as I love his earlier comedies, but I haven't been overly impressed by his most recent output. I liked The Big Short to an extent, and feel that his manic brand of filmmaking works a little better in that film. Vice was much more of a mixed bag for me, and felt like he was trying to do way too much, when he probably should have kept things a little simpler. And now we have his latest film, Don't Look Up, which is the closest thing to a comedy he has made since 2013's Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues. On paper, this shows some promise, as comedy is arguably what he is best at, but the laughs don't hit very hard, and get lost in the commentary that McKay is attempting to make.
This film begins with the discovery of a comet by astronomer Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence). This comet is expected to strike Earth in a matter of months, so she embarks on a media tour alongside Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). However, the pair quickly find that most people, including the government and media, are indifferent about the comet, and the film details their fight to help stop the comet, despite the obstacles in their way. This concept seems ripe with possibility, and could have made some great points about the way that people react to potential catastrophes, but the film falters in its execution, and lacks the impact that McKay wants the film to have.
To call this film heavy-handed would be a bit of an understatement. As I said earlier, subtlety is not one of McKay's strong suits, so it isn't much of a surprise that the message he is trying to convey practically hits you over the head. He clearly wants this to be an allegory for climate change (although some might draw comparisons to how the government has handled COVID-19 pandemic) and he doesn't try to hide this in the slightest. While it would be nice for McKay to exercise some restraint or nuance, that's just not the filmmaker he is. I have referred to McKay in the past as "Diet Oliver Stone" as his most recent films feel like he is trying to ape Stone's brand of filmmaking, especially in the way he takes on more serious topics. Both filmmakers seek to confront the audience with sociopolitical issues, but I would say Stone is much more successful on this front. McKay seems to have a hard time knowing when to hold back, which is one of the main issues I have with the film. He is wanting the film to be both a witty satire and a scathing indictment of media and government, but I don't think the film necessarily succeeds in being either. The more comedic moments don't land all that well, and the statements the film tries to make are not as cutting or as insightful as McKay seems to think they are. This leads to the film feeling like a bit of a mishmash in tone, and kept it from really connecting with me.
While McKay's manic brand of direction is on full display here, the film's frantic nature is further exacerbated by its editing. There are a lot of cuts all throughout the film, which at first was highly distracting to me, but then I began to wonder if that was the whole point. This is a film all about how people tend to ignore major issues or be distracted from them in one way or another, so it would make sense for the editing to reflect this. In one scene, some of the characters are talking about the threat of the comet hitting Earth, and it quickly cuts to random objects in the room throughout the conversation. This distracts from what the characters are actually saying, which plays into the film's overarching commentary surprisingly well. The film also uses stock footage multiple times, which didn't fully work for me, but I feel it also plays into the distracting, frantic style McKay is going for. Perhaps I'm giving McKay and editor Hank Corwin a bit too much credit here, but I feel like these choices happen far too frequently for them to not have any purpose. I will say that at times it does feel like it is overdone, but it is somewhat effective for the most part.
Also contributing to the near sensory overload of the film is Nicholas Britell's score. I am a fan of Britell's work, especially his scores for Moonlight, and If Beale Street Could Talk, and of course, there's his excellent work on Succession. Unsurprisingly, his score here is quite solid, but it is brought up to the forefront when it is used, which further contributes to the distracting method of storytelling the film employs. It feels a bit overwhelming at times, but the score itself is so good that I didn't mind it too much. I do wish it wasn't as in-your-face, but this is an in-your-face type of film, so it makes sense.
One of the reasons some might be willing to give this film a shot would be its star-studded cast, consisting of a number of A-list actors. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are co-leads, and both are given a much-needed chance to be a little over the top. DiCaprio is easily one of cinema's greatest shouters, and we get a great scene where he gets to let loose and panic. This is a more anxious, less confident character than he typically plays, and he does a rather good job with it. I wouldn't say this is his finest hour, but he still puts in decent work. Jennifer Lawrence is good, but I feel that the film isn't quite sure how to use her. She makes the best of what she is given, but I feel that her character isn't clearly defined. Quite possibly the biggest standout, however, is Rob Morgan, who delivers a solid performance. Morgan has one of the least showy roles in the whole film, which makes him stand out even more. It is a restrained, yet committed, performance that truly surprised me. I was also quite impressed with Timothee Chalamet, as this film gives him a chance to play a much different role than usual. I'm hoping he gets more opportunities to play against type in the future, as he does some interesting things here.
As for the rest of the cast, I'm quite torn. Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry are surprisingly decent together but didn't leave much of an impression on me overall. Mark Rylance plays a Steve Jobs/Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos-esque figure, which should work better than it does. There are moments where it feels like he is approaching something great, but it ends up being more of a mixed bag of a performance. Similarly, Jonah Hill's role as the son of the President of the United States should be a slam-dunk, but the film doesn't seem to use him to his fullest. It gets awfully close, and he has some good moments, but I wasn't overly impressed. Possibly the biggest shocker to me is that Meryl Streep's performance was disappointing. She plays the aforementioned President, but she doesn't bring all that much to the role, if you ask me. A lot of that could be blamed on the script, as it doesn't seem to flesh out her character all that much. It's clear that McKay wants her to be a Trump-like figure, but she reads more like Hillary Clinton. Whether this was on purpose or not remains to be seen, but either way, her character didn't fully work for me.
It's clear that McKay's aggressive filmmaking style works for some people, and for those who liked The Big Short and Vice, you will likely have a better time with this film than I did. To me, this is Adam McKay at his most Adam McKay. He truly thinks he's the smartest guy in the room with this film, but it doesn't feel like he has any new or insightful observations to share here. I feel that he doesn't have the ability to balance the humor and social commentary of the film, which leads to it feeling scattered and unfocused. Again, this may be part of the point McKay is trying to make, but I feel this hurts the film quite a bit. I will say that the film does end on a rather audacious note that feels more aligned with what McKay is going for, but the mid-credits and post-credits scenes take some of the sting out of it. This isn't the worst film ever made, but it is a rather disappointing one, all things considered. Maybe it's just that his comedies hold a special place in my heart, but I can't help but want him to find a way to make a truly great film. However, I am becoming less optimistic with each film he makes, and I'm worried that he will continue to learn the wrong lessons from each of them. I can only hope that he will prove me wrong one day, but we will have to wait and see on that front. As for Don't Look Up, I'm not a fan, but for those who are more attuned to McKay's more political films, this might work better for you. I appreciate some of what he is going for, but as for the film as a whole, it truly misses the mark.