In the beginning, there was light. And then, there were movies. And then, not long after that, there were people who watched those movies and snarked, “Well, that’s two hours I’ll never get back” (though it wouldn’t be surprising if that barb originated before the advent of multiple-reel cinema, maybe with some monocled jackass who wasted an entire minute of his life at a screening of William Heise’s 1896 short “The Kiss” only to discover that there wasn’t any tongue). As Charlie Kaufman is fond of pointing out, however, every two hours is two hours that you’ll never get back. It doesn’t matter if a movie is good or bad or anything in between: At the end of the day, we cannot hoard our time.
And yet, for all of the truth contained in that wisdom, certain films make it almost impossible to shake the feeling that cinema — the most palpably fourth-dimensional of all popular art forms — possesses an unrivaled ability to make us appreciate how we can waste it. Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” is nothing if not one of those films.
A star-studded comedy of terrors that boasts more A-list celebrities than actual laughs, “Don’t Look Up” may be the most interminable “Oscar movie” of the year (and just when it seemed like “Being the Ricardos” was finally on track to win something!), but it would be wrong to write it off as just “two hours you’ll never get back.” For one thing, it actually runs two hours and 18 minutes, including a couple of sadistic bonus scenes during the end credits that stretch the premise’s one basic joke to astronomical new lengths. For another, wasted time isn’t merely the function of McKay’s ultra-depressing farce, it’s also the central focus of a film that begs viewers to do something better with the time they have left.
Is “Don’t Look Up” further proof that self-importance has dulled one of Hollywood’s funniest minds? I’m afraid so. Prestige is one hell of a drug, and McKay’s descent from the galaxy brain genius of “Step Brothers” to the winky-winky self-importance of his recent work has been like watching the world’s greatest jazz musician discover auto-tune and fall in love with the sound of their own voice. (McKay’s new film is less aggravating than “Vice,” but all the more painful for being so tone-deaf to the stripe of comic absurdism that he helped to invent.) Does this sped-up satire — yes, it’s a farce and a satire — about humanity’s collective unwillingness to confront the threat of climate change perversely strengthen its point by surrendering to the same magical thinking that it exists to decry? A little, yeah!
As one of McKay’s many characters surmises as a comet the size of Mt. Everest hurtles towards Earth: “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” For better or worse, here is a movie that epitomizes what it means to have too much and not enough at the same time.
The above genuflection belongs to second-tier astronomy professor Dr. Randall Mindy (a bookish and bearded Leonardo DiCaprio, whose relatively toothless performance as a human “Far Side” cartoon is good enough for him to get away with prioritizing his cause above his craft). It’s while working in Randall’s lab late one night that one of his underlings spots a strange object on the other end of a telescope. Her name is Kate Dibiasky, she’s played by a headstrong Jennifer Lawrence — sharp in a largely thankless role as the straight-woman — and she immediately pukes into a bucket upon discovering that the comet will extinguish all life as we know it when it collides with our planet in six months. McKay’s decision to drop the title treatment over a freeze-frame of Lawrence’s barf so comprehensively distills the “we’re so fucked it isn’t funny” tone of the movie that the next 900 scenes can’t help but feel a bit redundant.
From there, “Don’t Look Up” unfolds like a sort of present-tense riff on “Idiocracy,” which feels redundant in a different and more nauseating way — it’s “Idiocracy” reframed not as a cock-eyed look at the future we’re creating, but rather as a eulogy for the one that we’ve already let slip away. By the time that Randall and Kate are in the Oval Office sharing the grim news of our impending doom with the disinterested, election-obsessed President (Susan?) Orlean (Meryl Streep, punching far below her weight class as a Trump caricature in #StrongerTogether drag), this film has assumed such a frightful resemblance to the recent past that entire scenes plunge headlong into the uncanny valley that separates history from satire, and jokes from their punchlines.
Some of that strangeness can’t be helped, and even serves as a testament to its creator’s foresight. “Don’t Look Up” has the misfortune of being too prophetic; when McKay wrote a broad comedy about the self-destructive myopia that appears to have doomed our species, he had no way of knowing that a much faster nightmare would come along eight seconds later and make it feel more like a documentary. Conceived before COVID and shot during the pandemic, McKay’s film may have been written in the vein of “Dr. Strangelove,” but it plays more like one of those lazy “SNL” cold opens that just regurgitates the week’s most tragic events in the hope of forcing them into farce.
Then again, this movie was never going to be funny. If McKay deserves credit for his script’s big-picture commitment to the notion of denial as an evolutionary flaw — for acutely rendering climate change not as an imaginary criss, but a crisis of the imagination — the average scene in “Don’t Look Up” is still as toothless as a fourth-line hockey player.
The Oval Office meeting is typical of a film that seems to think its challenging premise might absolve its JibJab-level jokes. On one side of the room, Streep carps about how the comet might hurt her party in the midterms (“The timing is just atrocious,” she says, as if reviewing the movie around her in real-time) while her large adult son and toadying chief of staff lazily roasts his mother’s guests (he’s played by Jonah Hill, whose reunion with DiCaprio left this critic pining for the savage hilarity they brought to “The Wolf of Wall Street”). At one point, McKay shows us a framed photograph of President Orlean posing with Steven Seagal, which might have been chuckle-worthy if the man Streep were parodying didn’t famously take the same picture with Kid Rock.
The yawning, telethon-sized gap between the legendary talent in this movie and the limp material they’re asked to perform is almost as wide as that which separates its cartoon president from the very serious people sitting across from her. Randall, Kate, and the stoic Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan, anchoring the movie with enough poise and dignity to convince you that we might be worth saving after all) represent the audience’s collective disbelief, and leave the White House mired in a Kafkaesque mission to convince the world that the sky is falling.
Alas, their media strategy is… flawed. Worse, it epitomizes how “Don’t Look Up” can be damningly accurate and deeply asinine in the same breath. In real life, as we know all too well, Randall and co. would leak their top-secret intel straight to America’s most prominent news outlets, and it would appear on the front page of every major paper on the planet (thus prompting right-wing power mongers to fatally politicize a non-partisan death threat). In this movie — which, again, McKay strives to make basically indistinguishable from real life! — Randall and Kate are forced to spill the beans during the third segment of a frothy morning talk show that’s mostly devoted to the high-profile breakup between pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) and her musician boyfriend DJ Cello (Scott Mescudi).
Randall tries to seize his Howard Beale moment and tell the masses that the end is nigh, but air-brushed hosts Brie Evantee and Jack Bremmer (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry!?!!) are hellbent on keeping things light. The tone only changes a few weeks later, when tech zillionaire Peter Isherwell realizes that there’s money to be made from the apocalypse (he’s played by a whisper-quiet Mark Rylance, whose soft arrogance strikes a nerve even though his spectrum-y mishmash of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk can be trite and insultingly broad).
As the comet screams into view and its eventual impact grows harder to deny, “Don’t Look Up” swerves tantalizingly close to making some good points about the ironic tunnel vision of the information age — about the struggle to reconcile the clear and present existential dangers of our time with the weaponized solipsism people naturally fall back on in order to stop themselves from spinning out. McKay casts a wide, wide, wide, wide net in his attempt to channel the exasperating memory of movies like “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” but his overeager riff on Chicken Little finds itself on far more solid ground whenever it narrows its focus to a more personal level.
If President Orlean delivering a premature “Mission Accomplished” speech on the deck of an aircraft carrier verges on anti-comedy, it’s bitterly amusing to watch a frustrated Randall shrink towards nihilism and busy himself with trollish flame wars on the internet; Melanie Lynskey is low-key brilliant as his clear-headed wife, her grounded performance paving the way for a surprisingly poignant climactic scene. Timothée Chalamet doesn’t show up until what literally feels like the 11th hour, but his purple state crust-punk injects some unexpected poetry into this story right when everyone around him is starting to lose faith. In a movie that beats its One Big Joke to the brink of death with all the comic brio that Mel Gibson once brought to “The Passion of the Christ,” there’s a kernel of humanity at the heart of this mess that not even 1,000 riffs on the same joke (“The End Is Here — Will There Be a Super Bowl”) can fully diminish.
McKay’s hypnotically depressing movie is sustained less by its gallows humor than by its intractable sadness; less by laughing at the end of the world than by lamenting how one natural emergency isn’t motivation enough for us to collectively overcome another. The human brain hasn’t evolved to comprehend the more abstract threats that confront us all today. We’ve been hardwired to think about food and shelter and sex — to grapple with the concept of death, but not to the point that it paralyzes us from living. Our survival instinct is leading us straight to the slaughterhouse, and “Don’t Look Up” feels like Hollywood rubber-necking at the carnage from their vantage point among the hilltops.
And so we’re left with a very sweaty film that strains to be funny, but one that’s also itching to argue that it’s lack of funniness is precisely the point. Some problems can’t be solved by celebrities alone, and the most subversive thing about “Don’t Look Up” is ultimately how — in its own impotent way — it weaponizes its wild star power to make that point. It isn’t smart enough to be a wakeup call or shocking enough to scare people straight, but in the early days of a century in which the world has become a farce of itself and comedians are the only people still afforded $75 million to make serious-minded original cinema, maybe all we can do with the time that remains is stare at our screens and lament how we got here.
Netflix will release “Don’t Look Up” in select theaters on Friday, December 10. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, December 24.