How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Comet

Don’t Look Up

by George Wolf

Since Adam McKay shifted into “political” comedy with The Big Short and Vice, it’s become most convenient to label him a satirist. But Don’t Look Up, his latest as writer/director, is more proof that pure satire isn’t quite McKay’s forte.

Not that his work isn’t funny, or astute, or politically charged – it’s all of that. But what McKay does best is his own special blend of outrage, farce, skit-based comedy and yes, moments of satire. The best of the modern satirists – Armando Iannucci, for example – are almost always commenting on one thing by talking about something else. McKay, though, fires slings and arrows that are so often on-the-nose they toe the line between shedding light and making it.

Climate change and disinformation are in McKay’s sights this time, and it isn’t hard to imagine Don’t Look Up being inspired by some exasperated bit of conversation.

“What if some giant, cataclysmic comet were heading straight for Earth? Would that get somebody’s attention?”

Astronomy PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers just such a comet, and along with her anxiety-prone professor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), calculates it will destroy the Earth in precisely 6 months and 14 days.

Sounding the alarm proves harder than they realize.

President Orlean (Meryl Streep, a bit too SNL) and her chief of staff son (Jonah Hill, in pitch perfect Don, Jr. mode) want to “sit tight and assess,” so Kate and Randall take their message to the people. But after an appearance on vapidly positive morning cable news chat, Kate is vilified for her severe bangs and shrill warnings while Randall gets tagged as a PILF and starts getting cozy with TV host Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett, glorious).

Meanwhile, weird tech CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) determines the comet could really be a good thing! It’s composition could be worth billions, so he pushes the administration toward a Star Wars-worthy plan to break it up in pieces small enough to harvest, as uber-angry broadcaster Dan Pawketty (Michael Chiklis) instead wants to focus on the real problem of topless senior caregivers.

What’s left for the little people to do except take sides?

With the clock ticking and the comet now visible overhead, the anti-science crowd preaches “don’t look up” while pop diva Riley Bina (Ariana Grande) belts out a soaring (and surprisingly tuneful) plea to “get your head out of year ass, just look up, turn off that shit FOX News.”

The fertile ground of current pandemic disinformation makes McKay’s mash of Dr. Strangelove and Mars Attacks! seem a little extra urgent. And while Don’t Look Up never matches the satirical majesty of Kubrick, McKay is able to nicely cop the disinformation industry’s circular strategy of reframing evidence against it as evidence supporting it. He knows how his film’s worldview will be attacked, but also how some calculated ridiculousness can be a pre-emptive strike.

But is McKay’s film going to change anyone’s mind? Seriously? No, no it’s not, but he knows that, too.

Hey, if you think our current situation is too dire to have fun with, that’s understandable. But if you can relate to Grande singing, “Celebrate or cry or pray, whatever it takes,” then this is funny stuff. Just don’t mistake the laughs in Don’t Look Up – and there are plenty of them, including a priceless running gag about expensive snacks – for a lack of outrage or conviction. McKay and one of the year’s best ensembles find space for all three.

Sit tight for mid-credits and after-credits stingers, too. And trust me on the snacks thing.

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