It was over the Yuletide holiday season, when I got tired, just for a moment, of watching reruns of all the holiday classics and pseudo-classics I feel I have to watch every December; “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “The Holiday”, “Love, Actually”, “A Christmas Story”, and “White Christmas”, to name a few, along with a few other new ones, that I turned my attention to “Don’t Look Up”, a new Netflix film that came packaged with an all-star cast and a plot that really had nothing to do with the holiday season. The Netflix movie was definitely a veering off-topic, giving a solid shock to the proverbial holiday system, smashing forth the cataclysmic destruction of our planet through a generally wicked satiric humor. The laughs were all there, almost uncomfortably because they were coming from the suggestions of exactly how we all would respond to the news that a really big comet was heading on a straight collision course towards Earth, and the total destruction of everything we know and hold dear was basically assured. Happy Christmas! “Baby it sings to me like fa la la, fa la la“
Written and directed by Adam McKay (“The Big Short“; “Vice“) based on a story concept by journalist David Sirota, the film tries its best to be a satirical send-up of all the political chaos that is engulfing the world, and more specifically, America. Straddling genres with a fair bit of success, “Don’t Look Up” attempts to latch onto the discordant nature of our interpersonal obstinant connection with news and social media, and the exhaustion and anger that we all find ourselves mucking around in when we really look at what is happening in our world today. It plays with the metaphoric ideas of global warming and the annoyingly intense vast divide in American politics by re-focusing the lens on the impending destruction of our planet from a comet, all from the narrow vantage point of the United States of America, with little to no acknowledgment or investment in the rest of the globe, suggesting, in a ridiculous way, that only the great and powerful America can solve this cataclysmic problem.
Watching from up north in Canada, “Don’t Look Up” rang oddly true in many ways. Yes, America has always liked to take the stance that they are the only ones strong or smart enough to save the world from destruction. A very clear stance, even when the U.S. of A. is, and has been, actively working against the planet’s actual salvation in the name of commerce and financial stability – i.e. that America’s wealthy stay wealthy and in charge. The framework is startling, but cinematically authentic, as world catastrophe movies have always cast America as its savior. I mean, just watch almost every film about alien invasion, and we see that very red, white, and blue lens, but this time around, without a great deal of subtlety, the President of the United States of America is not some uber-noble creature (like Bill Pullman’s President in “Independence Day“), but here in “Don’t Look Up“, the President is a cross between that orange monster we are still hearing from and that Palin creature from Alaska that we are not, most thankfully. Trying almost too hard to create a satirically witty connection between global warming and how we are foolishly destroying the planet we live on in the name of business and economy, the utter randomness of a huge comet colliding with Earth causing its complete destruction is a strained one, to say the least. One is purposeful or ignorantly blind, and the other is, well, sort of bad luck, but the finger-pointing in the film, wisely and very of this moment, is on how we respond and react. In that way, it works its magic well, in the sense that we watch the scientific denialism with horror, yet knowing that this stance has become part of the political landscape of the Republican Party and news agencies like Fox. It’s crazy and astonishing, but in many ways, the reality of our world is much scarier than the film’s stab at humor. In that chanting way that is the namesake of the movie, and in the greater metaphoric ideal, it is a pale comparison; really entertaining, I will add, but with a complex aftertaste that is too convoluted to deny.
Once you decide to get past those thorny issues, which I must admit I did quite happily, “Don’t Look Up” does start to become a bit of wickedly good fun, especially as we watch the big and famous movie stars dig into their parts with glee. Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook“), back from a two-year hiatus from the movies, settles into the part of an emotionally volatile doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky as solidly as one could hope for, holding her own easily with Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood“) as the nerdy professor Dr. Randall Mindy, a part that fits him well. The two take on the world, basically, as if they split the character, Jeff Goldblum, in “Independence Day” in half, giving DiCaprio’s doctor character the more mild-mannered brainy characteristics, and Lawrence’s Kate, the more hot-headed emotional approach just so she could be heard. Both work together extremely well, finding fun engagement in the astonishing way they look towards almost all those around them.
“This is not real. This is not real… Tell me this isn’t really happening!” Kate is the one who discovers the comet that is heading towards earth. At first, it is exciting; a new discovery, but with Randall being the one who runs the math and sees the collision with earth in six and a half months, the celebration quickly changes its tone and its course. With the help of NASA’s wonderfully named Planetary Defense Coordination Office, headed by Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, played solidly by Rob Morgan (“Mudbound“), they take the alarming news to the President’s office in Washington. Naturally, but unfortunately for all of mankind, the office is held by a familiar presence, President Orlean, played deviously well by Meryl Streep (HBO’s “Angels In America“; “The Prom“). She seems to be distracted, or ominously, more concerned with her polling numbers, the upcoming elections, and a Supreme Court candidate scandal that she is in the middle of. Streep is spectacularly on target with her portrayal, making the whole experience almost traumatic to watch with its uncomfortable resemblance to some true-to-life characters who call themselves politicians. Comedy, well, this is it, but the whole thing, especially the horrendously awful son of the President played by Jonah Hill (“Moneyball“) draws an uncomfortably strong comparison to that orange monster’s family and presidency. It’s smart and spot-on, but in a way, cuts a bit too close to the real and true bone to not cause a whole heap of discomfort and some unresolved anger held within to come flying out with a vengeance. Probably the point.
“This comet is what we call a planet killer,” they tell her. Sadly, after getting nowhere in that ridiculous and morally-vacant oval office, Kate and Randall don’t just sit tight while those buffoons reassess. Oh no, they try to do the right thing, specifically by doing the exact opposite of what they are told to do, becoming whistleblowers, almost against their will. They decide, irrationally, to go on a morning talk show and talk about the impending doom comet, mainly because they think that maybe their very heavy and important news flash might be listened to and acted upon, but the two soon find out their belief in the media is extremely poorly placed and misguided. As misguided as anyone who sits and listens to Fox News like it actually is a news show. Silly fools.
Obnoxiously hosted by two crass characters, expertly portrayed by Cate Blanchett (Broadway’s The Present; “Blue Jasmine“) and Tyler Perry (“Gone Girl“), the two anchors couldn’t care less and treat the story like a science project being presented by grade-schoolers. The actors find an uncomfortable balance between satire and the unfortunate reality we find ourselves trapped in with a power that is undeniable, even when we can’t stand watching it play out. Why these smart scientists would choose this television program, I’m not quite sure; one of the holes in the formula. The realness of the story gets sidelined by this strained and forced approach, in the same way, their cataclysmic scientific discovery almost gets lost under the importance of a pop star romantic breakup. Thanks, Ariana Grande. For giving us something so real, but also so thrown away. Although that hilarious scene in the green room is worth its weight in popstar gold. The news cycle engagement upsets DiCaprio’s Randall but really sends Kate over the edge, expressing all that was bottled up inside of us all as we listen to these synthetic hosts babble on about entertainment and the idea of light. Oddly enough the whole mess makes Randall a geeky science heartthrob, worthy of the interest of the plastic host that Blanchett plays to uncomfortable perfection. Does it feel right or true? Not really, but it sure makes for some fun in its own entertaining way.
“I hear there’s something you don’t like the looks of.” Well if you’re talking about the film, the answer is yes and no. McKay takes this rage and discombobulation in the framework, and runs fast and amusingly hard with it, throwing these two scientific whistleblowers under some very different buses. The points made are fascinating and solidly formed, basically hitting squarely right on the money, literally, even when surrounded by a wobbly structure that you just have to take in and believe. The satiric edge is worthy of the fun. It is entertainingly wicked, but not as sharp as one would hope for with such a pointed and disturbing topic. The always brilliant Mark Rylance (Broadway’s Farinelli and the King) is almost unrecognizable in an over-the-top portrayal of a rich tech madman, a parallel we don’t have to work too hard to unravel, while Randall’s wife, played beautifully by Melanie Lynskey (“Heavenly Creatures“) adds a thick tasty slice of humanity to the whole puzzle, especially during the final dinner scene when the honoring of what’s really important in our human existence is revealed simply and eloquently by all those at the table. With all that high star power wattage throughout gathered together inside “Don’t Look Up” to raise a doomed glass to our imminent destruction, it surprisingly comes down to the sweet and engaging Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name“; “Dune“) and his captivating, perfectly-formed dude creation, to give the whole thing some heart and some understated soul. The performance, once again, finds its way easily to center stage, delivering the piece forward to its emotional conclusion in this witty, complex story.
“Don’t Look Up” has a lot of holes and convoluted moments that struggle to captivate us completely, but the sum, in many ways, is better than the parts that are thrown together strictly for the sake of satire. Some of the parallels are almost too close to home to find funny these days when anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and a number of GOP politicians fill the news cycle with their absolute traitorous ridiculousness and dangerous carelessness, all in the name of power and political campaign dollars. The targets within “Don’t Look Up” are almost too easy, but when hit squarely or comically, surprisingly work. It can also, simultaneously, make a scenario somewhat more frustrating than funny. It’s an odd blend of both. But the end product hits us hard though on our funny bone and in our heart, as we watch the dinner party, and humanity come to its bitter end. The movie does allow us to see what is really important in the big earthbound scheme of things, flashing through all of the things that will or are currently (in the real world) being lost and destroyed because, as a collective, we can’t see the self-destruction through all the lies and P.R. campaigns. The film doesn’t really offer up any clear answers other than platitudes, but for a star-studded movie about the extinction of us all, it’s worthy of the wild ride and holiday investment. And please, please, please, wait for the Meryl petting moment in the credits. That scene almost becomes the most fulfilling one in the entire movie. Almost. But without it, I would have felt cheated.