There’s a scene in Adam McKay’s 2010 buddy-cop jaunt The Other Guys that involves Samuel L. Jackson, the Rock, a tall building, and a perfect deployment of the Foo Fighters song “My Hero,” and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. But if I were to point to a moment in McKay’s career where his approach to comedy and my ability to enjoy his work as a director began to diverge, it’d be right around the end of that movie, when a sequence about bailouts and crony capitalism plays over the end credits. This information wasn’t presented out of nowhere — the villain of The Other Guys is a Bernie Madoff–esque financier played by Steve Coogan who tries to make off with millions of dollars from the NYPD pension fund to cover other financial fuckups. But it was tacked onto an otherwise mostly blissfully silly movie, the way an enterprising parent might try to trick their children into eating vegetables by sneaking puréed carrots into mac and cheese. It’s possible to make funny movies that are also urgent or scabrously angry ones. The problem was McKay seemed to find entertainment and real-world issues to be fundamentally separate, deploying one in hopes of getting eyes on the other. He did Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues a few years later, and then shifted into the sorts of movies that might be deemed more important, if you buy the underlying assumption that comedies are fundamentally not.
God knows there’s nothing unreasonable about McKay’s rage, which he’s since directed at banks, again, in The Big Short; at the Republican Party and American political Establishment in Vice; and at government inaction with regard to climate change in his new film Don’t Look Up. For McKay, however, that rage seems incompatible with the comedies he nevertheless feels compelled to keep making. Misanthropy isn’t in itself a barrier to turning out great work — Idiocracy and Dr. Strangelove, both rife with it, are obvious touchstones for Don’t Look Up, a black comedy about two midwestern astronomers who discover a comet set to cause an extinction-level event, then have trouble convincing anyone to take the situation seriously. But McKay’s movies are not particularly pointed in their satire and, as time has gone on, have increasingly settled into their preferred form of a harangue. He seems to believe that people need laughs and famous faces to be lured into thinking about more pressing matters, and he hates them for it. And yet it’s hard to think about who, exactly, is going to be moved to make changes to how they live their lives by Don’t Look Up, a climate-change allegory that acquired accidental COVID-19 relevance, but that doesn’t really end up being about much at all, beyond that humanity sucks.
Don’t Look Up does, handily, star two of the most famous actors in the world. Jennifer Lawrence, back from a two-year break, plays punky Michigan State doctoral candidate Kate Dibiasky, while Leonardo DiCaprio is Dr. Randall Mindy, an unassuming professor, husband, and father. On a standard night manning the telescope, Kate spots an anomaly in the sky, and her initial excitement about discovering a new comet gives way to hesitation and then panic when Randall, running the math, realizes that the object is going to collide with Earth in six and a half months. With the help of Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) from NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, they’re taken to talk to President Orlean, who’s played by a smirking, curling-ironed Meryl Streep as some unholy combination of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, and who’s too busy dealing with a Supreme Court candidate scandal to do anything about the possible apocalypse but punt on it. So Kate and Randall turn whistleblower, going with a baffling morning talk show hosted by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as their platform of choice. They almost get preempted by news of a celebrity breakup. Kate’s outburst about it gets turned into an angry meme, while Randall becomes an unlikely viral heartthrob, and so the story slips into the daily churn.
This isn’t incisive stuff, but McKay, who wrote the screenplay based on a story idea by journalist David Sirota, just doesn’t care enough about popular culture or social media to effectively skewer it. Not that the film compellingly digs into the things it allegedly is invested in. Don’t Look Up wants to paint our inaction with regard to climate change as the result of denialism and being distracted by silly things like, say, a movie streaming on Netflix. But climate change isn’t a comet headed our way in less than a year — a lousy, faulty metaphor for where we’re at right now. Climate change is a slow-motion disaster that’s been brought on by generations of industrialized existence, and to contend with it requires us to think about ourselves collectively as a species and act on behalf of lives beyond the scopes of our own, in terms of the future and in terms of the whole planet. And we’ve never been good at that, which McKay should appreciate, given how his own movie fails at considering the world’s impending doom outside the lens of the United States. Don’t Look Up may cut in flashes of B-roll showing the rest of the world, but that world is only seriously shown to be America’s to fail to save, an unwieldy act of arrogance that misses the chance to engage with how long it has been since this country led the way.
In its final act, Don’t Look Up does start treating its characters as characters, and is a far better movie for it — for actually allowing that there are aspects of human existence worth preserving, and for making space for the tiniest bit of tenderness. Melanie Lynskey, as Randall’s wife, does a lot of that work in a smaller role, as does a surprisingly sweet Timothée Chalamet as an Evangelical burnout. But it’s only really toward the end that Don’t Look Up allows itself to be about the frustration and fear that comes with having no answers, and the dread of suspecting no one else will come up with any either. It’s a sentiment that’s more considered and vulnerable than the inchoate anger that marks the first two-thirds of the movie. It might make you wonder what McKay would think of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Romanian director Radu Jude’s movie that came out a few months ago. It’s much sharper in its confrontations and bleaker in its exasperation at the foolishness of a society teetering on the brink, all without standing outside the community it portrays and looking in (and down). But Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a movie with subtitles and no major movie stars, is never going to attract anywhere near the audience Don’t Look Up will. McKay may be full of bluster, but that, at least, he’s right about.