Until 2015, writer/director Adam McKay was the comic genius of the new millennium, rivaled only by his frequent co-producer Judd Apatow. Exploding into pop’s consciousness with Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy in 2004 after a stint as the head writer on Saturday Night Live, McKay and his fratpack muse Will Ferrell churned out endlessly quotable comedies for a decade without missing a beat or a $100 million+ gross, a reign that began with Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006), reached its pinnacle with Step Brothers (2008) and The Other Guys (2010), and returned to its origins with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013).
Though McKay’s films juggled slapstick and wit without resorting to formula, they also had things to say. No movie captured the Red/Blue divide better than Talladega Nights and no one has made a more resonant film about the 2008 financial crisis than The Other Guys.
But McKay, as he recently told Vanity Fair, wanted more. He needed his films to directly address the need for revolution, to further the ideals of the Democratic Socialists of America he has supported his entire career. Bernie was ascendant in 2015. It was McKay’s time. He distanced himself from Ferrell (a move that ended their friendship and production company in 2019), made his first serious movie with his adaptation of Michael Lewis’s Great Recession tale The Big Short, won an Oscar for that film’s screenplay, and followed it up with a $60 million Dick Cheney biopic that was such box-office poison it nearly bankrupted its production company.
Despite the awards attention McKay received, his grasps at legitimacy undercut his filmmaking talent. The Big Short was smarmy, artless, and inert, the type of middlebrow screed that lapped up critical raves while pedantically explaining to folks in flyover country how mortgage-backed securities work via a nude Margot Robbie lounging in a bathtub. Vice was more an adaptation of your hippie uncle’s drunken rants against Big Oil made by a film student who just discovered Jean-Luc Godard than a serious political statement. McKay spent the last half of the 2010’s becoming a bad filmmaker. His latest comedy effort, Don’t Look Up, proves he may now be the worst one working in Hollywood.
Don’t Look Up follows schlubby state-school astronomy professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his alt-girl grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) as they try to warn the world that, in six months, a comet they discovered will collide with the Earth and lead to an extinction-level event. Aided by NASA scientist Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), the two make their case to the Trumpian President Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her Don Jr. clone of a son (Jonah Hill) who rebuff the duo until the commander-in-chief needs a diversion from a sex scandal sinking her party in the midterms. But when Steve Jobsish tech guru Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) convinces the President to let him mine the comet for precious metals, corporate greed sends humankind hurtling toward the end of days. On the way, there’s Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as a banter-obsessed morning-news team fueled by alcohol and regret, Timothée Chalamet as an evangelical stoner, and Ariana Grande, who doesn’t seem to realize how close to her persona the thinly disguised version of herself she plays actually is.
Citing Don’t Look Up’s “A-List cast” has become a refrain in its press coverage and (largely tepid) reviews. However, McKay’s cast proves the film’s fatal flaw. Though it boasts four Oscar winners and three nominees, the movie’s halfhearted attempts at topical humor leave them with little to do beyond feigning the same down-to-earth qualities necessary to get through a late-night show appearance intact with a viral-ready clip or two. In interviews, DiCaprio has characterized the film as more an opportunity to raise awareness about his pet issue of global warming than the type of challenging project that would push him to new levels of artistry like The Revenant, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…, and The Departed. Likewise, perennial Trump critic Lawrence brings a glossy comic timing to her role rather than the complexity that defined her career-peak collaborations with David O. Russell on Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy. Streep seems to go through the motions in a fiction iteration of her infamous 2017 Golden Globes speech that set the stage for the Orange Man Bad Years while Hill throws out a solid one liner or two that shows how far he’s fallen from the vulnerability on display in Moneyball and his work with DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Only Rylance seems to be trying as he endows tech guru Isherwell with a hilarious speech pattern that alternates between authority and childlike hesitation, though the effort pales in comparison to the Big Tech interrogation central to Disney/20th Century Studios’s recent animated film Ron’s Gone Wrong.
Although McKay’s politics haven’t changed since his uproarious comedy days, the director has lost his ability to connect with populist America–the major fallout from his decision to swap out Ferrell for “serious actors.” Ricky Bobby and Ron Burgundy oozed brilliant satire aimed at the George W. Era, but Ferrell’s likeability and knack for tapping into the repressed fury of flabby middle-age masculinity made such characters as endearing as they are outlandish, deepening McKay’s political critiques. Severed from Ferrell and the brand of blockbuster comedy the duo created, McKay has few assets beyond dialogue displaying the subtlety of his Twitter page, which may be the most grating place on the Internet. As a result, his actors are left with underwritten roles as little more than mouthpieces, providing them few opportunities to rise above parody.
When McKay’s actors do fully commit as Christian Bale did in The Big Short and Vice, the performance often works dissonantly as an accidental critique of McKay’s political intent–one of the reasons audiences could see the actor’s turns as contrarian investor Michael Burry and Dick Cheney and come away finding both figures as iconic and worthy of emulation as Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (such also holds true for McKay’s HBO show Succession, a drama with anti-capitalist undertones that has nonetheless stoked its fanbase’s obsession with wealth and Wall Street jargon).
Without a comedian of Ferrell’s talents, Don’t Look Up comes off as little more than a broad defense of elites built on flogging the deplorables, so sure of its righteousness, it can’t be bothered to make a cogent argument. McKay bandies about a belief in peer-review and trusting the experts, but asks his audience to side with the local liquor superstore clerk Lawrence has become after speaking the truth (a plot point even more salient in the wake of revelations about Fauci’s campaign to discredit epidemiologists who challenged him in the early days of COVID). The film ruthlessly tries to satirize Trumpism through iPhone videos and rally scenes of clueless rednecks and other sundry salt of the earthers chanting, “Don’t look up,” while worshiping at Orlean’s altar. Yet, those same plebes spend the first hour of the film touting the potential jobs the comet will bring to the country (either McKay’s ham-fisted commentary on fracking apparently trumps plot cohesion or he really thinks the working class that serves as the bedrock of his politics is really that stupid). Those same rubes succumb to patriotic fervor when Orlean plans to send a blustery war hero (Ron Perlman) into space to nuke the comet Armageddon style. McKay apes the aesthetic of Michael Bay’s space epic during this portion of the film, the only time Don’t Look Up exhibits any stylistic panache beyond the handheld camera and shifting focus The Office exhausted a decade ago. That Bay’s 2013 Pain and Gain is a more insightful commentary on American class than anything McKay has done since his Ferrell days makes the mean-spirited joke an even bigger misfire.
As the film lumbers to the end of its 140-minute running time, its political contradictions and caveats ultimately position it as an unwitting satire of itself. It tries to allegorize climate change through lampooning humans’ inability to unite against the cut-and-dried impending doom of a comet when many of climate policy’s biggest critics from renegades like Bjørn Lomborg to Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus do not doubt the science, but rather have specific objections to the effectiveness of the types of policies McKay endorses.
It presents legacy media as colluding with the Right while laughably offering up Hollywood as an anti-establishment force solidified through a Grande power anthem that’s too much in the singer’s wheelhouse to elicit much more than a giggle over its expletives. It bizarrely casts Silicon Valley and its gurus like Isherwell as puppetmasters of the Republican Party and enemies of truth despite McKay gladly taking Netflix’s $100 million greenlight to make his passion project. It excoriates Americans for consuming social media while eliding that McKay’s career was largely built on his collaboration with Ferrell through Funny Or Die in the early days of Internet video.
Through its smorgasbord of leftist talking points, Don’t Look Up insists upon its importance while mired in clunky setpiece sequences meant to rival other serious cinema but instead showing what a warmed over mess McKay has overseen. Leo tries to pull a Howard Beale, “mad as hell” moment from Network on Blanchett and Perry’s news show, The Morning Rip, but it lacks both the authenticity of Sidney Lumet’s seminal media critique and the self-reflexivity that made the actor’s other recent breakdown in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… a career highlight. Likewise, Streep’s own version of Wag the Dog as President Orlean foregoes the even-handed acidity that made David Mamet’s screenplay so relevant and even prophetic in the Kosovo-Lewinsky news cycle of 1998.
McKay has spent the film’s press tour spinning Don’t Look Up as an urgent and important statement about climate change–a selfless proclamation that just happens to coincide with Oscar season. Yet, the film does little more than remind its audience of how far satire has fallen. Before anointing him as the heir to Michael Moore, Vanity Fair’s profile of McKay calls Don’t Look Up the director’s most personal film among an oeuvre of personal films, a throwaway line that exposes a truth that has thus far remained buried amid the movie’s contrived cultural impact. In the end, Don’t Look Up is really about Adam McKay. For the sake of the American cinema’s future, he cannot go the way of Michael More soon enough.
Don’t Look Up is streaming on Netflix.