Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” is sometimes kinda fun, sometimes awful, but it leaves you in a good enough frame of mind to accept its somewhat benign and warm view of human nature. And I respect it for making that pov extremely difficult for the audience to accept, especially after what they’ve seen.
At the most superficial level, it seems the idea was to remake Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” as a goof. Jennifer Lawrence, a “Phd candidate” astronomer, spots a distant galactic body moving in space, and is horrified to discover that it is headed for planet earth. After reporting this to her equally horrified professor, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, the two set out to warn the government. They know that the impact will destroy all life on earth, but they are both confident that the President (Meryl Streep) will immediately command massive scientific and military action to prevent the disaster.
Well, not exactly. Over the next two-plus hours, we see that the ruling powers will only view the problem as a threat to their leadership, and their political enemies only see it as an opportunity. Even worse, however, is that the rest of us cannot tear ourselves away from the trivial but nagging concerns that occupy us on a daily basis. In other words, nothing will get done, and the planet is doomed.
So, is this likely to be a comedy classic? Maybe some future Kubrick can do it, but not McKay. At least not here. Setting a frantic pace, McKay pummels his cast into outrageous caricatures of what start out as normal-looking people. Di Caprio is comfortably married to Melanie Lynskey, but gets distracted from saving the planet by the sexy overtures of Cate Blanchett, who co-anchors the Daily Rip with Tyler Perry. Lawrence, who is somewhat more committed to saving the human race, gets discouraged by the sleazy political opportunism of President Streep and her Chief of Staff, played by Jonah Hill. When an initial attempt to destroy the comet by rocket is aborted, we find out it’s because a multi-billionaire, played by Mark Rylance, sees a way to capture the precious minerals of the comet, instead of destroying it, which would result in enough money to feed the entire human race permanently (along with his cut).
And on and on. We can be sure that once we see a new character, it will take just a few screen moments to show him or her as incapable of taking the situation seriously. Sometimes we get laughs from this, but the pace rarely allows the players to act like normal adults. As often happens, the humor, piece by piece, can be funny, but the same stuff can just be annoying when we’re elbowed to laugh for two hours straight.
So we wind up making a mental checklist of the hit-and-miss count: Di Caprio, funny early on, but given two loud, boring rants; Streep and Hill, a good wacky team; ditto for Blanchett and Perry, but Blanchett and Di Caprio, a fizzle; Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi, a waste. Okay, Grande singing is a plus.
Best is Rylance, with a wicked – and scary – turn obviously based on Elon Musk (or Peter Thiel). Worst is Lawrence, in a stupid red wig, who never seems in sync with the other actors. Rose Byrne of “Neighbors” would have been a better choice. Come to think of it, the entire cast of “Neighbors”, along with director Nicholas Stoller, might have been able to get more laughs, fewer groans and winces, and at less running time to boot.
Only in the last fifteen minutes are the characters allowed to slow down, and contemplate the inevitable. While there’s little to laugh at, Di Caprio’s return to family, and a last meal with them, at least suggest that people may have enough humanity in them to take on the biggest task of all: just to survive.
Trouble is, it’s too late for that. But is it? Thankfully, McKay’s cynicism about the human character includes the fact that it may be our worst, most infantile behavior that can be the real reason for our survival. So stick around after the first end credits. One of the best gags follows it, and it left me with a smile.