Before watching Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, I had always felt that no comedy could justify a two and a half hour long running time. After seeing it, I still hold this belief.
After a more tonally serious run with The Big Short and Vice, McKay has decided to synthesize his work in comedy and drama to create the satirical film Don’t Look Up. Complete with a star-studded cast including names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ariana Grande, the film revolves around astronomers who discover a comet that will collide with and destroy Earth in six months, and their quest to get the government and the public to prevent the disaster.
The trio of astronomers bump up against the obstacles of apathy and conspiracy from the public, with many denying either the impact of the comet or its existence in totality. Government officials defer to a corporate mastermind to solve the crisis, rather than trusted scientists, and turn it into a media circus. The incumbent president (Meryl Streep) exploits the public’s fear and denial of the comet to fuel her campaign, all while the media fails to do its due diligence to address the incoming apocalypse. Surprisingly, the film was written before COVID as a climate change allegory, though one wouldn’t be faulted for thinking otherwise, as I did initially. It’s anything but subtle, but who says it has to be?
The roadblocks in the path to saving humanity must be overcome by the three main characters: DiCaprio as an astronomy professor, Jennifer Lawrence as one of his students who discovers the comet, and Rob Morgan as a NASA official. While the film touches on the effect this David and Goliath battle has on the characters, it only does so briefly.
Mostly the film is concerned with scenes between a deranged stand-in for one of the ills of our modern society and the exasperation of our heroes. Let it be said that everything the movie says is agreeable and well-intentioned, but the delivery simply doesn’t do the message justice. Scene after scene of entirely predictable encounters, not once does the movie make an effort to surprise its audience until the very end. Sure, a direct allegory for the times we live in may be near impossible to be surprising, but in this case it would do well to be short and sweet. Instead each scene persists on and on, seemingly asking the audience: “Do you get it yet?”
About everything the movie had to say had been said within the first hour, but it marches on. Not only are many of the scenes far too long, they start to become redundant, not only are they redundant, but they feel nearly identical before the movie even bothers to engage with its core conflicts and stakes.. Characters don’t change or grow (not meaningfully, anyways): they just listen to trite dialogue from the deluded and corrupt, not so much having a dynamic back-and-forth as repetitious exasperation. Much like the climate crisis, it feels as though the audience is left circling the drain the entire time in the hopes that those in control will do better until it ends.
Most damning of all in this satirical comedy is that the humor simply isn’t funny. I loved Anchorman. I’ll even go to bat for Anchorman 2, a movie that actually features some of McKay’s desire to inject satire into his work. But Don’t Look Up falls absolutely flat. The delivery of the supposedly funny lines are stunted and awkward. Sometimes that awkwardness is intentional, but it never serves the impact of the lines. It’s smarmy and sarcastic, but it isn’t dry nor over-the-top enough to get a laugh. Most of the comedic efforts read like a half-assed one-liner you mumble to yourself when nobody can hear you.It suffers from the disease that poisons many modern comedies, where most humor is not derived from jokes, but from characters’ saying mildly snarky things to each other, à la Ghostbusters 2016 or any selection of Adam Sandler movies. But the snark itself isn’t clever and the behavior of the characters is entirely predictable. Rather than fast-paced banter of classic comedies, characters sling around bland one-liners that would fit well as screenshots to post on social media. There are lots of theories on what makes comedy work, but Don’t Look Up subscribes to none of them.
What’s worst about the comedy is how much it stretches the already lengthy scenes. The satirical nature of the film means the comedy and drama is often interconnected — save for the scenes involving DiCaprio’s personal life that play like a million other movies you’ve seen before — and the inane predictability of the film’s plot ends up bloated by unclever half-jokes. The only times the movie gets laughs is when it engages with jokes having a setup and payoff.
It should be made clear that the comic failures do not seem to be a failure on the actor’s parts, but the directing. In the dramatic scenes, the actors do just fine, if not excellent. One scene involving DiCaprio’s character having a cathartic, emotional outburst on a morning show set in response to the misuse of news media is a highlight of the movie.
The wide array of sets, McKay’s personal views, the runtime, the cast and the impassioned satirical statements make the project feel genuine. It’s frustrating to have a big-budget project like this come out so poorly. One wants to applaud it for its efforts, for being an exasperated expression of our collective frustration. At moments, it scrapes against this high target; but these moments are all too fleeting to give it the credit that it asks for. But, to evoke one of its own lines — it certainly did try.