It’s hard to believe now, but at the start of 2021, Covid vaccines actually worked, Elon Musk had yet to become a Bond villain, and the idea that former and current presidents had top-secret documents strewn around their homes like so many AARP magazines hadn’t even entered our minds! It was also a time when filmmaker Adam McKay was riding high. McKay achieved cult status with his 2004 newscast parody, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, and gained mainstream and critical success in 2015 with The Big Short, which satirized the events leading up to the Great Recession. His 2018 follow-up, Vice, starring Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, wasn’t exactly box-office gold, but it did get a slew of prestigious award nominations.
So, helped by a truckload of cash from Netflix, it’s no wonder that McKay was able to assemble a dream team of talent for his 2021 comedy, Don’t Look Up, including Oscar-winners, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jennifer Lawrence. The plot of Don’t Look Up is simplicity itself; DiCaprio and Lawrence play a couple of astronomers who discover a killer asteroid heading towards our planet. The question becomes, can the world find a solution before the cosmos delivers an Etch-A-Sketch erasure of all life on earth?
Unfortunately, any potential drama is squandered by the fact that we know from the very beginning things aren’t going to end well. As far as the comedy aspects are concerned, McKay is picking low hanging fruit. Most attempts at being funny are built around the two astronomers trying to get their doomsday message across to government officials and members of the media. At best, each encounter is on par with a mediocre SNL sketch. Meryl Streep, punching below her weight class, portrays the blonde, conservative, disengaged, not-so-bright President of the United States who panders to her base of red hat wearing supporters. Did I mention low hanging fruit? The President’s son and chief of staff, played by Jonah Hill, acts like an entitled 17-year-old who only thinks he’s being smart and witty. It’s a character that doesn’t work at all, and Hill’s vain attempt to elevate the poorly written material is painful to watch.
There are a few performances that manage to amuse; DiCaprio expands on the neurotic persona he created for Tarantino‘s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, substituting alcoholism with a dependency on Xanax; Jennifer Lawrence is, as always, reliably entertaining, but I did get a little concerned about her electrolytes after her fifth or sixth tear-filled scene; Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett are terrific as smarmy infotainment hosts; and Mark Rylance more than earns his paycheck portraying a brilliant Steve-Jobs-type virtually aglow with every color of the autism spectrum.
It boggles my mind that Don’t Look Up received no less than four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. With a critical consensus of 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, it may be the first high-level award contender deemed “Rotten” by the ol’ Tomatometer since the 1967 version of Doctor Dolittle. It’s not without irony that a movie about a flaming ball of rock turned out to be a flaming bag of… well, let’s just say if you haven’t seen it yet, don’t bother looking up Don’t Look Up.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski
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