Don’t Look Up is a political satire starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence from the guy who brought us The Big Short, Vice… oh, and Anchorman. The nutty comedy centres on two low-level astronomers who are catapulted into a media tour in their efforts to warn citizens of the world about an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth. While Adam McKay’s drifted away from partner-in-comedy, Will Ferrell, after several strong collaborations… he’s now trying to get the Academy Awards to acknowledge comedy. To do that, he has to present them with thought-provoking and even head-scratching comedy – the stuff of Peter Sellers and its spirit animal, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
Comedy is actually more difficult to pull off successfully than drama, so it should already be getting its dues without having to cast Jack Nicholson to get the dispensers of golden statuettes to sit up and take notice. The stigma of being associated with traditionally slapstick, low brow, lightweight and mainstream elements has probably tainted the popular genre. So nowadays, you’ve got to needle (not lampoon) establishment with satire for any award recognition. This has been Adam McKay’s strategy, garnering more attention for The Big Short and Vice, and getting more Academy-friendly actors to do it… apparently where there’s a Will, no way.
The first thing you’ll notice about Don’t Look Up is its stellar cast including: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet, Jonah Hill and… that’s right, Meryl Streep. Nominee regulars, there’s no doubt that McKay went “Gone Fishing” with Don’t Look Up‘s typically more drama-orientated line up who probably want a trophy for both the frowny and the smiley mask in their glass cabinets. Assembling so many heavy-hitters, the filmmaker has developed serious clout and their full-fledged performances are testament to their respect for his burgeoning comedy empire and pull.
The cast’s a chocolate box assortment in the league of Burn After Reading… every bit as exciting and dependable as the oddball characters they play. DiCaprio is always game, turning in another solid co-lead type performance as a low-level astronomy professor who hits the big time with a similar weighting to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s wonderful to see a return to screen from Jennifer Lawrence, who’s been a bit quiet lately, taking on a co-lead role as a “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” astronomy student. While these big names set the platform, it’s the pinch-hitters that shine brightest from Hill’s regression, Blanchett’s bombshell, Rylance’s quiet thunder to Streep’s comfortable take on the President of the United States.
“As Ronnie said, the deficit is big enough to take care of itself.”
Beyond the performances, Don’t Look Up is a timely and scathing commentary on present day social norms and American politics. Riding on society’s tendency to sweep the bad news under the carpet and focus on who’s saying it rather than what’s being said, the film uses an impending world-ending event to poke fun. One gets the impression that it’s coasting on the same apathy and panic generated by the Covid-19 pandemic without having to go there. Substituting a massive meteor instead of an outbreak, the catalyst’s effect is similar without being an obvious reflection. This edgy inside joke allows it the space to deride current power structures, especially in the United States, overlapping seemingly toothless agencies with the real power brokers – influential bigwigs who have built digital empires and media powerhouses.
While the charm of the wink-wink performances and star power give Don’t Look Up clout, its long-running joke does overstay its welcome at 140 minutes. The satire makes its mark at the Oval Office and then continues to recycle and repackage this deferred catastrophe joke. To his credit, McKay keeps it fresh and engaging through his myriad of self-deluded lunatics. The trappings of overnight fame create a curious chasm for DiCaprio as Dr Randall Mindy while Lawrence takes a page from her own life in trying to minimise the consequences of her highly publicised “needs media training” fallout as Kate Dibiasky.
Tipping into the realm of Gone Girl, the media fronting and behind-the-scenes crossover makes for certain allowances. While these elements diminish Don’t Look Up’s cinematic qualities, its “straight-to-video” disaster movie status keep it fairly nimble as incisive popcorn entertainment with a bite. This versatile playing field makes it easy for Jonah Hill to self-parody and flex his fluency in a-hole. While Cate Blanchett has played a news anchor before, she’s singlehandedly able to mine the satire of Bombshell. Leveraging the same comedic territory is Mark Rylance, who downplays a quizzical media bigwig and new world influencer in the channel of Jobs, Zuckerberg, Bezos and Branson. Always entertaining and constantly sniping, it’s a brash and difficult-to-love political satire that uses TV attention-grabbing amusement to carry out its payload.
The bottom line: Amusing