Dir: Adam McKay. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet. Cert 15, 138 minutes
If anyone’s the right person to deliver the news that the world is ending, it’s Jennifer Lawrence. There’s always something firm and direct about her performances – free of florid mannerisms, or the impulse to romanticise suffering. The same facet of her personality that made her Hollywood’s “cool girl”, obsessed over and ridiculed in equal measure, has also proven to be her greatest strength as an actor. In short, Lawrence doesn’t bullsh**t. Neither does her character in Adam McKay’s punchy, funny satire Don’t Look Up.
Kate Dibiasky is an astronomy grad student who’s desperately trying to convince the world that a comet is about to hit the Earth and destroy all human life. There’s nothing particularly flashy about the role – the big, awards-bait monologue goes to her co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Kate’s professor with the kind of twitchy feverishness that he’s always excelled in. But as the heavily publicised return from her acting sabbatical, it’s perfect. Kate faces person after person unwilling to accept their impending doom. The look of disgust that creeps over Lawrence’s face, as if someone were slowly lowering her hand into a bucket of pond slime, made me realise exactly how much I’ve missed watching her on screen.
When Kate goes to the White House with photographic evidence that the comet she discovered will hit Earth and trigger an extinction-level event, do they immediately pull an Armageddon and muster a crew to nuke the thing into oblivion? Of course not. The midterms are coming up, and with President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) already trying to manage the blowback from her controversial Supreme Court nominee, news of an apocalypse won’t reflect well in her numbers. “Let’s sit tight and assess,” she ultimately rules, in an exquisitely painful sequence where McKay amplifies the tension by intermittently zooming in on DiCaprio’s panic-stricken baby blues and Streep’s elegant hands brushing back hair. And though the impulse might be to look for a Trump comparison, Orlean is really some hideous hybrid of every modern president, Democrat and Republican, all of them guilty at some point of bowing to self-interest.
No one else is of much help – the media’s fixation on commodifying the truth is captured in the ghoulish hyena cackles of daytime talk-show hosts Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry). Mark Rylance’s timorous, Willy Wonka-adjacent tech CEO Peter Isherwell inevitably starts to wonder whether the comet can be monetised. His presentations begin with a warning to the audience that there should be no direct eye contact, coughing, or negative facial expressions. Who could he possibly be based on?
There’s nothing subtle about Don’t Look Up. It’s a clear-cut metaphor for the climate crisis – hence the use of DiCaprio, a well-known activist in the field. It also applies somewhat to the pandemic. But obviousness has been the mark of McKay as a filmmaker since he switched from straight comedies, like Anchorman and Step Brothers, to the political didacticism of The Big Short and Vice. Those last two played a little too much like slideshow lectures on the financial crisis and War on Terror – occasionally smug or patronising in tone. Don’t Look Up is an ideal middle ground, detached enough from reality that it can function as pure satire, with the obviousness of it all only further fuelling the absurdity. The film pitches a small group of sensible protagonists – Lawrence, DiCaprio, Rob Morgan’s coolheaded Nasa official, and Timothée Chalamet’s skateboarding GenZer – against some of the most terrifying veneers ever put on film, all puffed-up parodies of the capitalistic drive. And it does very well to capture the feeling that the entire world is losing its mind.
Ariana Grande pops up at one point, essentially playing herself, and delivers a song that features the chorus “We’ve really f***ed up.” There’s something oddly satisfying about the way McKay's film lets us laugh at our own doom.
‘Don’t Look Up’ is out on Netflix now
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