Warning: This Review of Don’t Look Up contains Major Spoilers.
Let’s just get this out of the way at the very front: Don’t Look Up is the best film to come down the uneven pike of 2021, the most wickedly clever and subversive satire since Robert Altman eulogized the Vietnam War in 1970’s classic opus M*A*S*H.
I knew I was in for a treat this Christmas as my Better-Half and I settled in to watch director Adam McKay’s (The Big Short, Vice) latest film Don’t Look Up. About two minutes into the two hour and eighteen minute run-time I began to cackle – not laugh, mind you –giddily as the first in what turned into a torrent of moments satirizing our distorted and tumultuous era. Aforementioned Better-Half laughed along, too, and we both looked nervously at one another; not because I sound a bit like Paul Reubens choking on a chicken bone when I break out into one of my far-too infrequent cackles (which I do), but because my wife and I have both sat through oodles of movies that have a strong few minutes or so before falling flatter than Henny Youngman following the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Would Don’t Look Up continue that unfortunate trend and go the way of De Palma’s The Bonfire of the Vanities – a promising premise that buckles under the weight of unrealistic expectations? Nope, and double-nope, Dear and Constant Reader: This star-studded apocalyptic comedy held its vaunted center for its remaining running-time, actually pulling off a miracle by getting even better as it rolled along.
Don’t Look Up follows two astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, both in career best performances) who embark upon a media tour warning their fellow man that the Earth’s days are numbered after they detect an incoming comet with a mad on for our planet: The duo discover that in just over six months everyone’s Starbuck’s Points will be null and void when the space rock careens into us, setting off the literal End of all Existence.
Director Adam McKay could have played Don’t Look Up any number of ways and, to his good credit, this mensch behind such audience-favorite movies as Anchorman and Talladega Nights has his cake and eats it too by sending-up every conceivable one of those scenarios; all the boxes are checked. From the soft-lens focus of any number of Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich disaster pics with their respective Slow Motion Hero Walks (perfectly embodied by Ron Perlman’s gruff and no-nosense Benedict Drask character), to the depressing “yep, we’re all gonna die” pathos of Deep Impact (I’ve never forgiven director Mimi Leder for what she did to poor Tea Leoni in that ’98 flick), McKay puts his fun spin on all of ‘em and still somehow escapes having a finished film that feels fragmented and schizophrenic. Make no mistake, Don’t Look Up is its own exotic bird despite the pop culture callbacks, and it masterfully draws out the laughter through the tears as we as an audience grow to love and care about DiCaprio’s Dr. Mindy, Jennifer Lawrence’s Kate Dibiasky, Rob Morgan’s Dr. Oglethorpe and Timothee Chalamet’s skater punk with a heart of gold, Yule. These are not cardboard cutouts brought to you by a hackneyed screenwriting class. Rather, they are fully drawn out people with a past, present and, for a very brief amount of time, a future.
Praise must be given to the incredible ensemble of actors Adam McKay assembled for this effort. Leonardo DiCaprio is hands down the very best actor of his generation, but his last couple of films have felt muted – beautiful to look at, but with very little substance at the end of the day. It’s exciting as a viewer to see an actor clearly hitting on all cylinders and that’s just what the Shutter Island star is doing in Don’t Look Up, whether it’s in a scene where his character is having a full blown panic attack or, more poignantly, where he’s simply driving a car and explaining to his friends the meaning behind the lyrics of the World War II-era song Till Then as their time on the planet grows perilously short.
Jennifer Lawrence is an equal dance partner to DiCaprio’s sweaty, panic-induced mess. In what might just be the actress’ best work since 2010’s Winter’s Bone, her character of Kate lands in the unwelcome role of the Ancient Greek prognosticator Cassandra: A woman cursed to utter true prophecies, but with the caveat that she’s never believed. It’s a role that suits this actress and it’s nice to be reminded of what this Indian Hills, Kentucky native when stripped of her usual role as muse to director David O. Russell can do. She’s nothing but pure magic and stardust under the guiding and assured hand of McKay.
Don’t Look Up is a full-course meal, and it’s hard to imagine anyone walking away from this table as anything but sated and fulfilled. More than anything else, it’s a sharply funny and concise commentary on the times we’re all living through. Whether it’s or own worship of the Cult of Celebrity, our fear of COVID-19, the sick overdependence on social media by everyone and their grandmother, the propaganda machine which passes as the media of the 21st Century, the poisonous divisiveness of modern day politics, or the grossly wealthy who have been all but elevated to the role of gods and who have gone on to have a disturbingly profound impact on our daily realities and whatever future may be ambling down the dusty country road, McKay and his actors leave no stone unturned as this fictional world barrels towards utter annihilation. If it hurts at times to watch, it’s because we see so much of our own reality mirrored back to us in an entertaining albeit unflinching manner. To borrow a line from The Bard, “All are punished” (or, if you’re more of a Morrison fan, “No one here gets out alive”).
Perhaps the best coda not just for Don’t Look Up but for us as a society if we’re to continue to grow and positively thrive comes near the end-mark in the film. The dreaded comet is no longer an abstract at this point – It’s in our atmosphere just moments away from ending an entire planets history and all of the lives of its inhabitants. Our core-cast of characters -including an understated and perfect Timothee Chalamet and Rob Morgan -have gathered together for one last meal before their very existence is wiped away. A corner television set blasts the latest breaking news of the demise of the Earth in that sick kind of way we’re all familiar with via the CNN’s, Fox’s, Bloomberg’s and CNBC’s. In a very pointed and heartbreaking moment DiCaprio’s burdened and kindly doctor looks around him and at the souls he has opted to spend his remaining few seconds with: Two sons, a beautiful wife, his fellow doctor and friend, his student and her new love. Without missing a beat, he quietly trails over to the boob tube and its accompanying noise and flips off the set with nary a thought. Looking over at his motley group of friends, family and lovers he walks back to the table they’re all gathered around and sits down. In his final act as a human being on the planet Earth, it’s the smallest of gestures and yet it means the most. What’s important to us versus what’s just superfluous racket – the internet, social media, pharmaceutical commercials, chronic and widespread outrage over everything – is everyone’s measure at the end of it all. Let’s hope we’d all turn off that TV and finally have a real and human moment.