“Don’t Look Up” Review: Jennifer Lawrence’s Political Satire on Netflix Veers Too Close to Home
Don’t Look Up, the political and satirical dramedy directed and co-written by Adam McKay (The Big Short) that opened in select theaters on December 10 and debuts on Netflix this December 24, upset me more than I was expecting, judging by its irreverent trailer. But the story kept bringing me over and over again to moments from our recent history.
Meryl Streep plays U.S. President Janie Orlean. She’s the kind of leader who dares to smoke in public and makes her popularity soar in the process. She holds big political rallies in arena-sized venues with people chanting perfectly crafted emblems with more than an unsubtle lock-her-up ring to them. Her own son Jason (Jonah Hill having way too much fun) serves as her absolutely clueless — and just plain impertinent — chief of staff. And she’s appointed an anesthesiologist and acquaintance as head of NASA. But mostly President Orlean couldn’t be bothered to be bored. And she’s pretty much inconvenienced during this movie.
Our protagonists — a trio of scientists played by Leonardo DiCaprio as Astronomy Professor Dr. Randall Mindy, Jennifer Lawrence as PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky and Rob Morgan as Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe — have just discovered a comet 5-10 km wide headed in the direction of Earth. The scientists run the numbers; they know the comet will hit our planet and pretty much destroy everything and everyone in a little more than six months. Yet no one seems to want to fully grasp what they have to tell.
The journalists at a New York Times-like publication are worried about Randall and Kate’s lack of media training and their inexistent social media engagement. The folks at a morning talk show popular due to the chemistry among its hosts — played with gusto by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry — want the scientists to keep things light and gleeful on air. And there’s no way you can spin the end of civilization on a fun note. Orlean and her team of yes people think the comet’s timing is atrocious — with midterm elections in three weeks. They decide to have some Ivy Leaguers run the numbers — Randall and Kate are from Michigan State University, after all — and opt to do nothing but sit tight and assess.
When the Satire Becomes a Quasi-Naturalistic Portrait
The first half hour of Don’t Look Up managed to steal a few laughs out of me. I did enjoy DiCaprio’s character having a full-blown panic attack while repeating: “This is not happening, right?” and going for a quarter of a Xanax pill to try and calm his nerves. Kate pops the full thing with a lot more coolness. Prof. Randall is also advised to keep it simple when he and Kate start talking to the press. “No math,” Teddy tells him. “But it’s all math!” DiCaprio’s character counters.
But as the movie kept progressing — and I should mention one of my least favorite things from Don’t Look Up was its runtime of two hours and 25 minutes, which puts it with some other too-long 2021 movies — I kept having the feeling McKay’s film was a satirical naturalistic portrayal of our society that I wasn’t necessarily ready or wanting to face.
And I’m not talking only about Orlean’s Tr*mpian persona. The general unwillingness people have in the movie to believe a comet is coming toward Earth, even once it can be seen with the naked eye, kept bringing me back to how society has dealt with the pandemic: questioning the existence of the virus or putting opinion before science while deciding not to vaccinate.
If all that wasn’t enough, the film also comments on technology and how tech giants dominate our economy and have hijacked the political agenda, with the figure of a tech CEO played by Mark Rylance continuously buried in his oversized cell phone’s screen. He has Tim Cook’s hair, mumbles à la Elon Musk and gives a general soulless Zuckerbergian-villain sort of vibe.
There’s a lot in the movie about my profession as well. The demise of journalism is not only seen in some of the instances I’ve already mentioned. Himesh Patel plays an online writer who balks at nothing while chasing a surge in traffic and boosting his personal brand.
The star-packed ensemble is probably the thing that kept me hooked for the whole film. Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi play a couple of music artists and social media celebrities who manage to eclipse any news, even the world coming to an end. Melanie Lynskey is June, Randall’s long-suffering wife and the person in charge of his many pills. Ron Perlman is a colonel with enough of a hero charisma to him. There’s a Chris Evans cameo. And Timothée Chalamet personifies the kind of boyfriend many of us would feel attracted to if the world was ending.
Even though McKay is portraying quite an extreme and unlikely situation with most characters misbehaving and doing dubious, questionable things, nothing felt over the top or exaggerated in Don’t Look Up. I kept having a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction sensation for the whole movie.
And while Don’t Look Up is perfectly crafted in all of its many references and performances, after almost two years of an unrelenting pandemic and no shortage of other bad news, I feel I would have preferred to watch the fun and light version of this movie the trailer manages to somewhat misleadingly depict.