Writer-director Adam McKay started off his big screen filmography with broad comedies like Anchorman but has recently veered into satires like The Big Short. These films attempt a timely examination of an issue but with an angle to make the audience laugh. Sometimes this works quite well. Don’t Look Up is the latest such film from McKay and, unfortunately, it does not.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play two scientists who discover that a comet is headed toward an impact with our planet. It will be an extinction-level event. They try to inform the president, played by Meryl Streep, but they are blithely dismissed. Then they make an effort to inform the public on their own and that doesn’t go as planned either. When the government does finally decide to take action, capitalist interests ensure that saving humanity is in doubt.
The obvious flaw with this film is that the tone of the comedy is just not there. McKay clearly wants to take a swipe at the ideologies dividing America right now. Ideologies that have led to climate change and science denial in general. However, without specifically naming the political party of the president, there is only so much humor that can land consistently. There is also a lack of focus to the laughs, as the script tries to mine giggles out of class elitism, our culture of celebrity, and casual prejudice.
As for the plot, the details pile up in ways that feel depressingly realistic but also not quite smart enough to be truly insightful. Another noticeable problem here is that certain moments are presented with elements like the performances and musical score at a serious gauge that don’t fit in with the ridiculous nature of satire. Then there is the bonkers final scene. Trying to elicit true laughter out of the destruction of life is just an uneasy fit.
To be fair to the actors, they all seem to be doing their best with the material. Especially DiCaprio, Lawrence, and the always welcome Melanie Lynskey. The cast is large and filled with recognizable names. Even the supporting roles have actors like Cate Blanchett and Jonah Hill in them. These performers have a lot of awards nominations and wins between them. They deserved a stronger screenplay.
Since we as viewers are still enduring a global pandemic, we know all too well that some people could be easily manipulated into thinking the comet is a hoax, or that it could somehow be a good thing to let it impact Earth. It is all to believable that the wealthiest would have escape plans in place with no regard for the rest of us should something like this actually happen in real life. This is rendered in a way that just makes you discouraged about the state of the world, not entertained.
Since the entire point of a film is first and foremost to be entertained, this is a shame. This is even more true when a genuinely good shot or well-written piece of dialogue does pop up here. You wonder what might have been made different and perhaps better because the premise is one with a lot of potential.
Don’t Look Up is a film where the writing has lost touch with the comedy it is striving to achieve. It will certainly be an interesting artifact from the year of our lord 2021 but as a movie, it could have accomplished more in many different aspects.