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It’s the end of the world as we know it – ‘Don’t Look Up’

December 29, 2021
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You might not think that the end of the world is an appropriate backdrop for comedy, but fear not – Adam McKay has you covered.

Sure, an impending apocalypse SHOULDN’T be funny, but in the right hands, it certainly can be, and McKay has those hands, along with a willingness to embrace cultural divides and darkness in the name of plausibly bleak satiric observation.

McKay’s latest is “Don’t Look Up,” an at-times pitch-black comedy about what happens when the end of the world is coming and no one can seem to agree on what – if anything – we should do about it. The film has the same sort of sharp edges that we’ve seen in McKay’s more recent output and his fingerprints are all over it – he’s directing his own screenplay here. It also features a frankly incredible cast, an ensemble jam packed with Oscar winners and Hollywood icons; you don’t often see a bench this deep.

It is wildly funny – darkly so, but funny nevertheless – while also being deeply, bleakly plausible. It is a condemnation of current cultural discourse, a scathing takedown of American attitudes that is relentless in its disdain. It is a relevant and resonant reflection of where we are and where we could be going, delivered in a manner that elicits laughter even as it unsettles.

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a PhD student in astronomy doing her graduate work at Hawaii’s Subaru Telescope. One day, she discovers a previously unknown near-Earth object – a comet. She reports the discovery to her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). What begins as a celebration quickly darkens as Dr. Mindy’s math indicates that the comet is on a collision course with Earth … and it’s big enough to cause an extinction event.

Dr. Mindy reports his findings to NASA, which in turn puts him in contact with Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office. This trio is sent to the White House, where they eventually meet with President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her son and chief of staff Jason (Jonah Hill). The President is disinterested, more interested in the upcoming midterms than this very real existential crisis.

Dr. Mindy and Kate decide to leak their dire news to the media, arranging for an appearance on a lightweight news show called “The Big Rip,” hosted by Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) and Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett). Their appearance goes off the rails when Dibiasky, unable to contain her anger at the hosts’ inane banter, erupts; the quiet, nervous Dr. Mindy comes off as far more personable. The actual news of the comet is buried; it only gets more complicated when NASA and others disavow the very existence of the comet.

But when the President finds herself in a scandal, she reverses course and tries to use the comet and a mission to deflect it as a way to boost her approval ratings. But when one of her mega-donors, a multibillionaire tech CEO named Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), has other ideas, the reality of the crisis starts to disappear beneath layers of self-interest. Dr. Mindy and Kate are both swept up into the maelstrom, albeit in very different ways.

Before long, society’s attitudes regarding the comet are fractured. Some are afraid, some are indifferent … and some refuse to believe that there’s a comet at all. Trapped in the middle, dealing with the deterioration of their own lives, are Kate and Dr. Mindy.

And all the while, the end of life as we know it continues hurtling toward Earth.

“Don’t Look Up” is a seeming contradiction, a film that is both hilarious and depressing. McKay’s vision satirizes the head-in-the-sand attitude adopted by so many when it comes to true existential crises – pick whichever one you like, they all apply – in a manner that elicits some big laughs while also being plausible in some truly unsettling ways.

The most effective satire is that which is cleanly extrapolated from that which already is and then exaggerated to an extreme. And there is little question that many of the attitudes and actions present in “Don’t Look Up” – from political figures to media outlets to corporate shills – spring from a seed of truth. Nothing you see in this film is more than a few steps removed from the discourse and decisions we experience every day, resulting in something that is equal parts hilarious and terrifying.

Honestly, this movie won’t be for everyone. As I said, the tonal vacillation is pretty intense in spots; even as you laugh, you might feel a knot in your stomach. There are a lot of terrible people doing terrible things throughout this movie, so be warned.

McKay’s story is a bit shaggy, with a narrative that meanders a bit in the middle. Part of me wants to say that the film should have been trimmed by 20 minutes or so. But I can’t, because it would deprive us of so many brilliant performers committing to the bit SO HARD.

DiCaprio’s nebbish-y Dr. Mindy is a hoot, a bundle of raw nerves that somehow manages to be sweatily charming. Lawrence gives us a bit of edge, but one that feels branded – off-the-rack Hot Topic in just the right way. They’re great together. Streep is a queen and she is having so much fun that you ride the wave of her character’s awfulness. Hill gives us the foul-mouthed jerk that we haven’t seen as much of in recent years, but at which he still excels. Perry is good enough to almost keep up with Blanchett, who has the knob cranked in the best way.

And I haven’t talked about Timothee Chalamet and Ron Perlman and Himesh Patel and Melanie Lynskey and an absolutely outstanding turn (both acting and singing) from Ariana Grande. Like I said – cast is STACKED.

“Don’t Look Up” is a thought-provoking and engaging work of satiric dark comedy, one that revels in the bleakness of its premise even as it mines said premise for humor. The end may be nigh, but at least you’ll go out laughing.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 29 December 2021 08:00

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