There are nearly as many Hollywood heavyweights in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up as there are stars in the galaxy – and at least one rogue comet. A low-ranking astronomer professor and a PhD student learn to their horror that this comet is going to smash into Earth in six months and 14 days. Another discovery follows for Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate (Jennifer Lawrence). Nearly nobody cares, certainly not the President of the United States.
A meeting between Randall, Kate and their only ally, the scientist Ogelthorpe (Rob Morgan), is a disaster. President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) is distracted by an upcoming mid-term election. Her son Jason (Jonah Hill), the Chief of Staff at the White House, would prefer to hear the bad news from an Ivy League professor.
The news leaks out anyway, leading not to the expected panic but a circus of apathy. Dad-bod Randall finds himself an overnight sensation after an appearance on a frivolous television show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry). Kate, who has a meltdown on the show, becomes the object of cruel memes but earns the admiration of drifter Yule (Timothee Chalamet). Meanwhile, the comet hurtles unerringly toward Earth.
The shenanigans of politicians and military generals carry echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War-era doomsday comedy Dr Strangelove (1964). President Orlean, a proud vulgarian who likes to give out plum posts to family members and high-spending donors, is clearly cast in the image of Donald Trump.
The allegorical satire about wilful apathy and denial is as thick and obvious as climate change, pandemics, financial meltdowns and just about any crisis that puts humankind at risk. Subtlety is never the point, but the effectiveness of McKay’s scattershot script and teeth-clenched humour at low-hanging fruit is certainly moot.
McKay, whose previous comedies include Talladega Nights, The Other Guys and The Big Short, finds it challenging to stretch a Saturday Night Live sketch into a feature and keep up with the ridiculousness of the current political discourse. Barbs about ratings-obsessed television networks and gossip-hungry news consumers already seem dated in an era of kakistocracies that have come to power on the basis of fake news and divisive propaganda.
McKay’s focus on American politics also narrows the scope for Don’t Look Up. The fleeting references to how the crisis is playing out in other countries yields a few seconds of screen time for Indian actor Ishaan Khatter.
The conceit is carried along by the dazzling star cast, who ham expertly on command. Leonardo DiCaprio, as though sending up his overwrought undercover agent in The Departed, furiously pops pills and yells inchoately as disaster seems certain.
Jennifer Lawrence, as a punkish PhD student and among the film’s overmedicated souls, is in excellent form. Cate Blanchett is suitably doozy as a primetime anchor whose develops “propulsive” feelings for Randall.
The scene-stealer turns out to be the most unassuming marquee name in the cast. Mark Rylance plays Peter Isherwell, a creepy Big Tech player who resembles Jeffrey Epstein and who tries to mine financial gain out of the crisis.
In the vein of such self-declared visionaries as Bill Gates and Elon Musk, Isherwell bristles at being called a “businessman” but turns out to be just that. The 138-minute movie is at its sharpest when the soft-voiced and hard-bargaining Isherwell is on the screen, selling invasive technology and American-style capitalism before the end of days.
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