Packing three films into one, this end of the world dramedy is simultaneously more and less than the sum of its many parts
Adam McKay made his name with an era-defining quartet of Will Ferrell comedies before parlaying that success into a number of complex but scattershot docudramas about America’s broken institutions. His latest, Don’t Look Up, is an attempt to meld those two incredibly distinct styles while also adding a third component: the earnestly sincere drama that attempts to grapple with what the end of the world might actually feel like. It’s rarely an easy fit, though when it finds a rhythm, Don’t Look Up can be a strangely moving experience, simultaneously less and more than the sum of its many parts.
While The Big Short and Vice tackled, respectively, the 2008 financial crisis and the evils wrought by Dick Cheney in a head-on manner, Don’t Look Up finds McKay in a more allegorical mood. Though the obvious real-world target is powerful governments’ complete inaction regarding apocalyptic climate change, in the film the threat to humanity comes from a giant comet speeding towards Earth. Discovered by PHD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervising professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), the comet’s path puts it on track to destroy the entire world in six months’ time, so Kate and Randall have to launch a tour of America to convince the nation and its president to take action.
Unfortunately for the pair (and the entire planet), most of the people in charge don’t want to listen, either dismissing their proven scientific data as “hysteria” or trying to find ways to monetise the coming catastrophe. At the forefront of inaction is President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), a cynical right-wing moron who proves a double-edged sword for the film as a whole. She makes for an undeniably effective villain, her blasé incompetence often bordering on the frightening and really helping to hammer home the anxiety and rage of Kate and Randall, which is well-played by both Lawrence and DiCaprio.
Yet, the obviousness of her being a stand-in for Donald Trump, right down to her culture-war slogan hats and a creepily incestuous dynamic with her awful offspring (in this case a cretinous son, played by Jonah Hill in the film’s funniest performance), stamps an indelible date on Don’t Look Up – a date that has in fact already passed. Alongside some pretty passé stuff about phone addiction and Twitter celebrity worship – the breakup of two popstars (Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi essentially playing themselves) trends much higher than the coming Armageddon – it makes the satire here feel much less biting than either of McKay’s previous two films.
The general joke quotient is also lower than you might expect – bar a couple of fun running gags and some enjoyably absurd caricatures of American media figures, there aren’t many big laughs to be found. It’s a surprise, given McKay’s history, but makes sense as the plot gets deeper and Don’t Look Up reveals its true dramatic hand, looking at questions of how to maintain human dignity even in the face of imminent, and total, destruction. McKay’s writing and direction really finds its footing in this more sentimental strand, as the satire and comedy come to feel more like obligations. The turning point between the two – a Network-style monologue from Randall about the ways disinformation has shattered our shared reality – seems certain to serve as Don’t Look Up's “Oscar clip” moment.
It’s the standout scene of Big Acting in a film that is so full of Big Actors that some are bound to get lost in the shuffle. DiCaprio and Lawrence are both a lot of fun as co-leads; it’s great to have him playing a more feeble character than usual and just as great to simply see Lawrence back on the big screen and allowed to be funny. Streep is more pure caricature, and it’s actually Rob Morgan, generally known for supporting turns but starring here as the head of Planetary Defence, who gets to imbue his character with the most humanity.
Some of the other star names – Cate Blanchett, Ron Perlman, Tyler Perry etc. – manage to do a lot with a little, but Mark Rylance looks completely lost as Peter Isherwell, a broadly creepy Zuckerberg/Musk tech mogul who should really have been played by someone like Walton Goggins or even Will Ferrell. The final piece of this puzzle is, of course, Timothée Chalamet, as young hippy kid Yule. He arrives in the film quite late but gets perhaps the most memorable scene, a genuinely touching and earnest moment that is given a thrilling meta kick in the way it also functions as a symbolic passing of the torch from DiCaprio to Chalamet as one of the last actors to achieve superstar status without the need of franchise fare.
If this all sounds monumentally crowded on paper, it’s even more full-on in practice. This is three films crammed into one, and only one of them is consistently worth your time. And yet, despite its myriad flaws and general clumsiness, the bits that do really work are amongst my favourite scenes in any film this year. Don’t Look Up will test your patience, but it also eventually slows down to deliver a gut punch that you might not have thought McKay capable of – a bracingly honest ending elevates the whole endeavour past all the silliness into a scathing indictment of The Way Things Are. The result is one of the most consistently surprising films of 2021.
Don't Look Up is released in UK cinemas from 10 December and Netflix on 24 December.Where to watch