Don’t Look Up Review

The forecast in Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up is a planet killing comet mixed with a heavy dose of condescension. This is an all-star experience about our home star being decimated. The writer/director is a Saturday Night Live veteran scribe who mastered the art of penning sketches with exaggerated characters. Even with all the talent involved (there’s lots of Oscar nods and wins among the cast), hardly any rise above caricature status. The nerdy but hot scientist, the clueless government officials, the spoiled pop princess, the pompous and feeble brained news anchors, the empathy devoid and weird billionaire…

These one-note types may fit a mold in a cleverly developed bit that runs five minutes. Not so much in this two and a half hour countdown. They’re mostly tiresome in McKay’s latest politically charged tale. In The Big Short, the filmmaker mixed a cast of familiar faces, complicated financial talk, and humor to rewarding payoffs. McKay’s comedies with Will Ferrell (particularly Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) are already classics. The issue presented here isn’t complex… a scientific discovery (doubling as a metaphor for climate change) is on its way. McKay’s treatment of the subject matter isn’t subtle. And the screenplay often fails to be funny when showcasing its righteous indignation. Anger and laughter can be a potent combo if handled properly. It’s a test that isn’t met here.

Michigan St. Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers said object hurtling toward Earth with a delivery date about six months out. Her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) teams with her along with the head of the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (Rob Morgan) to warn a White House filled with scandal and nepotism. The President is Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), whose Supreme Court nominee may be a porn star and her lover. Her Chief of Staff is her intellectually challenged but supremely confident son (Jonah Hill).

The 100% certainty of a deep impact causing armageddon is not music to the ears of the flailing administration. In fact, Kate and Dr. Mindy are booked in the back segment of a “news” hour hosted by a duo played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. The segment preceding them is about the romantic entanglements of a famous singer (Ariana Grande). Some of the country takes the threat seriously while another segment pretends it doesn’t exist (and yes it’s easy to draw comparisons to the pandemic era).

President Orlean and her bumbling bubble get more involved when eccentric tech mogul Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) figures out a way to monetize the materials from the potential Earth shatterer. And while Dr. Mindy becomes distracted with his new fame and social media status, Kate’s stern warnings make her an enemy of the state.

I won’t get to Kate’s two boyfriends or Dr. Mindy’s wife and kids or whether the snacks in the White House are free or not (actually a gag that’s pretty solid). There’s a whole lot of players in Don’t Look Up and I’m challenged to name a performance that sticks with me for the right reasons. DiCaprio and Lawrence are adequate, but we know they can be so much better. Others are outright annoying and that includes Hill, Rylance, and even Streep. That’s because McKay never writes them above the level of cartoonish morons.

Will your political viewpoints determine whether you dig this? I don’t think so. The frequent struggles to develop the principals and the jarring tone shifts (a late pivot to sentimentality falls flat) should offend both sides and those in between. I’ve watched McKay skewer his targets with far more precision that achieved more lasting results. He’s clear that we’re all doomed in Don’t Look Up. With the characters inhabiting his screenplay, you might find yourself pulling for the comet.

** (out of four)

Oscar Predictions: Don’t Look Up

Up until the last couple of weeks, I’ve had Adam McKay’s political satire Don’t Look Up on the outskirts of my predicted 10 Best Picture nominees. After all, just how many Netflix contenders will get in? I figured The Power of the Dog would be their main play and there’s other possibilities with Tick, Tick… Boom!, The Lost Daughter, and Passing. 

I recently vaulted it into the fold of ten and (better late than never), that appears to be the right call. Before its eagerly awaited December 10th limited bow in theaters and Christmas Eve Netflix premiere, Up has screened for critics. The social media reaction is leaning toward the positive with particular shoutouts for certain elements and performers.

The star-studded cast is filled with previous Oscar winners and nominees: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Timothee Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep. There’s also Rob Morgan, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Chris Evans, Matthew Perry, and Himesh Patel.

McKay’s last two pics (2015’s The Big Short and 2018’s Vice) were both up in the biggest race of all. His original screenplay detailing the end of the world should be recognized. I’m not as confident he’ll make it for directing though I will note that he made the cut for the previous two and it’s certainly feasible. While Dog may continue to be the Netflix flick I rank higher when I update my forecast Sunday, I don’t see Up moving down the charts and out of the 10.

As for the massive list of performers, the early word is that Leo could vie for his seventh nod (his sole win came for 2015’s The Revenant). He still needs to get past other sturdy thespians. I do like his chances better tonight than I did earlier today. With Lawrence, Best Actress is overflowing with hopefuls and I doubt she lands #5. Ms. Streep is going for her 22nd trip to the dance. Her work as the President here is being mentioned in the laudatory tweets. Supporting Actress has got its share of contenders too, but betting against Meryl is always risky. Supporting Actor is wide open at the moment yet I’m skeptical about Hill or Rylance (or the many others). If Netflix goes all in on one of them, that dynamic could shift.

Surprisingly enough, its most assured nomination could come with Ariana Grande. Not for Supporting Actress (her part is said to be brief), but for her Original Song “Just Look Up”. Editing seems a safe bet as does Score and other down the line races like Sound and Visual Effects are possible.

Bottom line: it’s looking up for Don’t Look Up to get up to a handful of nominations. My Oscar Predictions posts for the films of 2021 will continue…

Oscar Watch: Teen Spirit

Last fall, the musical drama Teen Spirit premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to some acclaim that especially focused on its lead Elle Fanning. The film casts her as a shy teen who dreams of pop stardom. The soundtrack finds her covering tunes by the likes of Katy Perry, Ariana Grande, and Annie Lennox. It marks the directorial debut of Max Minghella, whose late father Anthony earned a gold trophy 23 years ago for making The English Patient. Zlatko Buric and Rebecca Hall are in the supporting cast.

With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 70%, Spirit is in no contention for a Best Picture nod. Yet some critics have made a point to single out Fanning, who’s had well received supporting roles lately in The Beguiled and 20th Century Women.

A little box office attention could’ve helped but Spirit completely stalled in its limited release over the weekend. Some reviewers may call Fanning a dark horse candidate months from now, but I expect this to end up like last year’s Vox Lux with Natalie Portman. While different in tone, that picture also centered on a pop singer and had its supporters. They did not include Academy voters. My Oscar Watch posts will continue…