Don’t Look Up: so very nearly a very good film

Don’t Look Up is a very, very curious film. It’s many things, but I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s actually a good film.

Adam McKay, directing a screenplay he wrote with David Sirota, has assembled a quite outstanding cast for his first Netflix feature. The problem is that each of his stars seems to think they’re in a very different film. Jennifer Lawrence, whose haircut deserves its own entry in the credits, thinks she’s in a profound allegory about a coming apocalypse and the world’s—well, America’s—response to it. Leonardo di Caprio thinks he’s hamming it up in the slightly screwball comedy the film itself imagines itself to be until the opening titles are over. Rob Morgan thinks he’s in a government-intrigue thriller. Meryl Streep, who must by now be wondering what went so very, very wrong that she ended up here, thinks she’s in a rather ham-fisted satire on the Trump years. Cate Blanchette thinks she’s in a spoof of American broadcast news shows. Ron Perlman thinks he’s sending up films like Armageddon and Deep Impact. And Jonah Hill thinks he’s in a knockabout comedy, but then, Jonah Hill usually thinks he’s in one.

Leonardo di Caprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jennifer Lawrence’s mullet, in Don’t Look Up

And so that’s the problem with Don’t Look Up. It’s an interesting concept—Kate, Lawrence’s PhD-candidate, discovers a new comet, and while she’s chuffed it’ll be named after her, she’s also devastated to learn that, as her supervisor Dr. Mindy (de Caprio) calculates, it’s five miles wide and on a collision course for Earth. So we’re setting up, then, a parable about how humans fail to respond to existential crises, but McKay starts his film with some out-of-place comedy tropes—the oh-so-witty captions over frozen frames can be a clever device, but if you’re going to use it, you need to commit to it, and he gets bored, or forgets, or loses interest, after the titles. Instead, he has Kate and Mindy taken to the White House to meet President Orlean, a clunkily written and over-acted Donald Trump parody that lacks anything resembling depth or subtlety, even in the usually quite capable hands of Meryl Streep. She looks like she’s having fun with the character, but Orlean just isn’t quite evil, or machiavellian, or, well, pretty much anything enough to be interesting. Failing to get her attention, Kate and Mindy go to the press, where they find themselves on The Daily Rip, hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchette) and Jack (Tyler Perry), who are more interested on inane banter than on anything resembling substance in their news show.

Add to this Mark Rylance’s perhaps weakest appearance on screen to date as tech mogul Peter Isherwell, and we end up with a very confused film. The tone simply can’t settle down long enough for it to feel like a coherent whole, and at two hours and eighteen minutes it’s at the very least half an hour too long. It’s clear that there is the germ of a very interesting idea buried in the mess that is Don’t Look Up. McKay clearly has a message he wants to send, that there’s an apocalypse coming but the rich and powerful are more interested in making themselves richer that they’ll happily watch the world literally burn. But the metaphors are so mixed—is it about climate change? is it about the pandemic?—that the message gets lost. The quick-edit shots of bees, and whales, and all your favourite nature clichés just serve to remind you that there’s a message in here somewhere, but McKay seems to forget to make it quite clear which message he’s trying to send.

Meryl Streep, insufficiently evil as President Orlean in Don’t Look Up

There are some decent performances here—Kate Dibiaski is a modern-day Cassandra, and Lawrence does, as one would expect, a fine job of teasing out her frustration as the authorities dismiss, then try to exploit, her news; di Caprio finds some depth in a quite under-written role as Randall Mindy. But then there’s some odd bit-parts that suggest McKay made a few promises to include folk in his next film to stars he met recently at a post-pandemic party in Hollywood—Ariana Grande (and I’ll always, as a Manc, have a special fondness for her) is an unnecessary presence as the oddly-named Riley Bina, and Timothée Chalamet’s character, a somewhat dead-ended love interest for Kate, is so surplus to requirements that he could be totally removed from the film without changing its arc meaningfully, or indeed perhaps at all.

And so we have a film that could have—should have—been brilliant. There’s so much going on, but sometimes less can be more, and McKay needed a little more restraint in the compiling of this film. There are so many parts that the whole is almost inevitably less than their sum, and that’s a great shame. No, it’s not a bad film. But it’s nowhere near as good as it should have been.

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