Writer/director Adam McKay, who spent most of his career making comedy for comedy’s sake, has made one of the more interesting pivots in Hollywood, turning his comedic eye on real world topics. He took on the financial system in 2015’s The Big Short and the Bush/Cheney presidency in 2018’s Vice, using satire to make larger points.
At first blush his new film, Don’t Look Up, wouldn’t seem to be in line with the previous two. It centers on two astronomers, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardio DiCaprio) and PhD student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), who make the shocking discovery that a previously uncharted comet is on a course to hit Earth. They quickly try to get word out about the impending disaster, starting with a meeting with President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), and then move on to a press tour when the president doesn’t seem to take the threat seriously.
It’s during that tour that McKay’s real goal with the film starts to crystalize, as Mindy and Dibiasky’s urgent message to the world gets filtered through a variety of outlets, each of which have their own goals that don’t necessarily align with that of the astronomers. The deeper they get, the more it becomes clear that having the public believe in a fact in this day and age is next to impossible.
Journalist David Sirota, who’s worked on a number of political campaigns, including Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential run, is given a story credit on the film, which should tell you something about where it is heading. Through a thinly-veiled lens, it gives commentary on the current state of science, politics, the influence of money on politics, media, social media, discourse in general, all-encompassing corporations, and more.
The more McKay skewers what life is like in the modern world, and the last two years in particular, the funnier the movie becomes. Each of the people Mindy and Dibiasky encounter are ridiculous in their own way, but they’re also scarily believable in a world where a former reality TV host and his family became leaders of a country.
And thank goodness the movie is so funny, because if you think too much about the implications of the characters and plot developments, you might start crying. That’s especially true of the film’s discussions around science, which ring all too true in a world where efforts to keep people healthy, including a life-saving vaccine, are being debated as good or not.
The cast of the film is top-notch, and they all came with their A-games. DiCaprio, Lawrence, and Streep maintain their Oscar-level reputations, and other great performances dot the film’s landscape, including those by Rob Morgan, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Jonah Hill, Melanie Lynskey, and Mark Rylance. The cast is such that somehow Timothée Chalamet is relegated to second-tier status.
McKay has carved out a special role in Hollywood, one where he seems to know how to tackle weighty topics without making his films feel heavy at all. Don’t Look Up may just be the best movie about the COVID era without ever mentioning the disease.
Don't Look Up is now playing in theaters. It debuts on Netflix on December 24.