Dir. Adam McKay. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep
There are spoilers here for a recent release, though Don’t Look Up definitely strikes me as the kind of movie that’s hard to actually “spoil.”
The funniest thing in Don’t Look Up is the running gag about the general at the White House who charges Mindy (DiCaprio), Dibiasky (Lawrence), and Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) for snacks. (A very near second, at least in my heart, is the part where Timothee Chalamet puts his head back, twirls his index finger in the air, and shouts “I fuckin’ love fingerling potatoes!” in an empty supermarket.) This is a joke which takes some time to develop. General Themes (Paul Guilfoyle) comes back to the hallway outside the Oval Office after this little science crew has been waiting for a while, bearing a couple plastic bags and waterbottles, and tells them that they charge an arm and a leg for this stuff at the White House. This is the first joke, because the idea that there’s some kiosk or something with overpriced snacks at the White House like it’s Six Flags is a funny one. The second joke is when Dibiasky realizes that the waters are free and that they’ve been hustled by the general. It seems like this is going to be the end of it, but twice more Kate reflects on the sheer pointlessness of it. I’ve been going over it, she tells Yule (Chalamet), and I cannot make it make sense. Even at the end of the world, she’s lingering on this, somehow the most inexplicable thing which has happened in this unprecedented six month period. “He knew I would find out the snacks are free,” she murmurs at the last supper. This is a good bit. Adam McKay is still funny, no matter how unkind he’s been to Will Ferrell or how obnoxious he is on the Internet, and this gag is used just enough and in just the right places to get reliable laughs. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any other element of the movie, short of Chalamet’s doofus supporting role, which we can call “funny.”
Don’t Look Up has been marketed and reviewed primarily as a satire, and I imagine it was probably even intended to be a satire by the people who made it. It’s just not. Treating the film like it’s satirical is sort of like treating The Silence of the Lambs like it’s a romance or looking at 2001 like it’s a horror movie. Sure, you can talk about it, but it’s such a fringe interpretation of the text that it doesn’t actually bear fruit or make it worth the time to do it. Don’t Look Up is certainly polemical. It’s allegorical. It’s also probably best understood as a disaster movie. This is a movie which goes to some lengths to help us understand what would happen if a comet just happened to wind up hitting Earth, and honestly it’s more interesting to watch that movie than it is to try to decide what exactly this movie is making fun of.
I am not going to do the play-by-play version of the Discourse here—this is a movie review and not a gossip column—but I do know that it’s worth thinking about the critique that this movie isn’t “subtle” enough. Anecdotally, I’ve seen it on my Twitter feed and heard it in my personal conversations, to say nothing of the reviews I’ve read or the weeklong temper tantrum that the filmmakers and their friends have been having on the Internet in response. People aren’t really critiquing the subtlety of the film’s jabs, because satire is not about subtlety. No one reads “A Modest Proposal” and says stuff like “Jonathan Swift’s ambiguous tone on the subject of eating Irish babies adds to the cogency of his critique of the British government.” No one watches Dr. Strangelove and says, “I think that line about fighting in the war room is a little on the nose.” Here’s a bit of a Howard Beale monologue from Network, a film which satirizes the godlike power of television in American life, written by a guy who wrote for television throughout the 1950s:
Listen to me! Television is not the truth. Television’s a goddamned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!
Real subtle. Anyway, what people are trying to locate when they say that Don’t Look Up isn’t subtle is that the film is preachy and smug about its rightness, which, again, is not really a critique of a satire. Swift, again, is not trying to be humble or “hear both sides” or whatever in “A Modest Proposal.” Spike Lee was not making Bamboozled with an open heart to the racist depictions of Black people in American visual culture, or trying to figure out if white people had a good point in doing so. The most generous way to interpret the lack of subtlety critique in Don’t Look Up is to read that bad interpretation as a criticism of the film’s non-specificity. If you follow Adam McKay and David Sirota on Twitter, you understand that they view Don’t Look Up as being an allegory for climate change. If you don’t follow them on Twitter, then I think the much more natural impulse is to read the film as a metaphor for the response to covid-19. The two sides to the issue, “don’t look up” and “just look up,” feel much more like pro-mask and anti-mask than anything that has to do with climate change. This is a mistake for a film which, presumably, is meant to be satirical. You don’t walk away from Network and ask if it’s trying to raise our hackles about television or theater.
Don’t Look Up hinges on the moment where Mindy loses his mind on live television, literally screaming the film’s moral in profane, shrieking terms. Dibiasky has gotten herself banned from the airwaves for having the proper level of alarm about the impending doom of all life on Earth, but Mindy has gone with the flow of celebrity, embracing his role as America’s hot scientist (“Me likey hunky Star Man”) and having an affair with Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) of The Daily Rip. Eventually he loses his crap too. Maybe not everything has to be so much fun, he cries out. Maybe we should be able to speak plainly, maybe even rudely to one another when the situation is literally life or death. It’s not quite Hosea marrying Gomer or Ezekiel lying on his left side for over a year, but it’s the same kind of marked, humiliating seriousness, and it couldn’t be clearer that the film really wants us to see this as its great epiphany, not just for Mindy but for us. It’s a thought which is not really about climate change, or covid. It’s a lot closer to the film’s hang-ups about arguing with people on Twitter and our preoccupation with celebrities. (If only we didn’t have famous people…then, surely, the hoi polloi would get their collective act together and care about climate change. There’s a gif for this. I was going to leave it with the pithy comment, but like, doesn’t the presence of so many “just look up” partisans prove that people can actually care about policy and Riley Bina at the same time? What an own goal.)
Therein lies is the central problem of Don’t Look Up, even more than how basically not-funny it is. It is so mad that it doesn’t even know which targets are worth aiming at, and so it makes the film’s big moment a lashing out that makes Mindy a lot closer to the dad from A Christmas Story than Elijah. This takes us back to viewing this film, in its best version, as its most literal self. It’s still a sad state of affairs, sort of like saying Fail Safe is the best version of the story that’s also Dr. Strangelove, but that’s what Don’t Look Up leaves us to work with. On its face, even with some truly bad performances from Meryl Streep as a horny POTUS and Mark Rylance as a collage of everyone who’s ever had a billion dollars, it’s still a fairly compelling story about what to do to blow up this comet and how Big Tech gets in the way because they see the situation through dollar signs instead of with hard-nosed practicality. I thought that stuff was at least as interesting as like, Deep Impact, which ain’t much of a bar but at least Don’t Look Up doesn’t linger lovingly on child brides.
What’s most interesting and incriminating about Don’t Look Up is its nostalgia. If the film believed that there was never a time when this external threat wouldn’t have been met with concerted effort to solve the problem, then it wouldn’t occur to anyone to make the picture. “Dog bites man,” and all that. “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” Mindy says to the table at large on the last night of the world. He’s just had a family-style dinner where everyone pitched in to make it and everyone is swapping stories and hanging out. He’s come home, in the literal sense but also in the way he’s trying to make nice with his wife, June (Melanie Lynskey) after wronging her for the last few months. There’s a (gasp!) cultural conservatism in this movie’s central thesis. Back in the day, Don’t Look Up wants to argue, we would have stopped the Dibiasky Comet. Business would have gotten in line, politicians would have done the right thing, and everyone would have gone home and had their fingerling potatoes in familial peace. It’s only in our present time, with smartphones and memes and cable news, that such a calamity would have been recognized and also dismissed to the point of blowing up all the babies and bugs on planet Earth. Things used to be better, the film seems to argue, but as is the case with all nostalgia, it never really gets into the messy details lest that foul up the good vibes.