The Last Laugh
Charging for snacks
Several weeks have passed since Adam McKay debuted Don’t Look Up on Netflix, and I’m glad I waited until the circus atmosphere around that (record-setting) opening died down before I watched it. Not that I can’t block out stuff like that, but it’s always an annoyance — like going to see a vaunted new movie (in the before-times, I mean, when what the prestige press said really mattered and red-carpet openings were a big deal) and thinking, “wait a minute, am I going crazy or is this alleged Big Deal actually a piece of shit?”
I mean, sure McKay was ridiculous to suggest that if you didn’t like his movie, it meant you didn’t care about climate change — and it was tedious to see critics (and non-critics) pressed into addressing the point. I do believe a filmmaker has to right to dissemble on behalf of their movie — if you think making it into a crusade will get more people to see it and think highly of it, good for you. But [recrosses legs, clicks light pen] for this reviewer, it’s better without the noise.
McKay works a narrow but interesting vein. The Big Short and Vice are agitprop, sure, but classy. I liked the former more than the latter, because I thought the vignettes-in-an-aspic-of-narrative strategy was very well-suited to the problem of explaining how obscure financial instruments were used to steal from the poor and give to the rich, and how the “financial crisis” was not an Act of God but a consequence of deliberate, wholly venal actions. The Big Short did that job well, especially in scenes like the stripper talking about her multiple mortgages, and it even gave a glimpse of the bigger picture — the lords of finance gone feral.
Vice used a similar strategy, but the method was too dry for the apparent ambition, which was to use Dick Cheney and his anti-social form of politics as a skeleton key for Republican anti-ethics. It might have worked better as a simple biopic. Christian Bale was great, particularly at showing how someone with so few admirable traits could rise so far in such a system, but Cheney’s story and the political analysis didn’t mesh very well.
In Don’t Look Up, McKay shifts his strategy to something more old-fashioned. Here the climate-change lessons are delivered the way they are in Godzilla movies — by having the sweaty protagonists do exposition. And the problem behind the problem — the greed and self-delusion that makes problems like climate change impossible to solve — is explained through the old-fashioned device of satire. But it’s not satire like Dr. Strangelove (to which a few people have compared it) — that is, a fully-realized world of grotesques driven by the logic of their madness — but something more Candide-like (or maybe really more mid-20th-Century-like, in the manner of Bruce Jay Friedman or the Boulting Brothers), in which we focus on some noble souls trying desperately to cope with the lunatics who surround them. (Remember, Mandrake was not the hero of Strangelove.)
You probably know the story: astrophysicist Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) has a grad student, Kate (Jennifer Lawrence), who discovers a giant comet hurtling toward earth. The trouble is Randall and Kate can’t get anyone to take them seriously. That isn’t to say they’re disbelieved — thanks to their connection with White House science guy Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), their revelation is quickly escalated. But they sense something is off early on; the Pentagon general who has them cool their heels outside the Oval Office, for example, charges them for snacks that, Kate discovers, are actually free, a dissonance that, even in her terror over what she’s discovered, she just can’t let go of.
It’s a clever device — the short-sighted user-fee mentality of our stupid society in action — and it turns out to be a harbinger: In Don’t Look Up, everyone has a reason for not doing the obviously needed thing to save the planet. The president (Meryl Streep) and her asshole son/chief of staff (Jonah Hill) are so used to political prioritizing they can’t see why they should disrupt it for something as out-of-sight, out-of-mind as a comet; the TV talk show where Randall and Kate try to get attention is run by a couple of chucklefucks (Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett) who cannot under any circumstances deal with any kind of a downer, and who turn the comet into just another soft-news topic. Randall and Kate keep pushing, and sometimes make what looks like progress, but — spoiler alert, of course — the system is built to fuck this up; bowing to the capitalist happy-clappy of a fashionable billionaire-visionary freak Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) rather than to the science, the President decides not to immediately destroy the comet but to try and mine it first, with disastrous results (and I confess, that disaster is one of the few space-set special effects that has ever really given me the chills). The heroes go home and make peace with their death and the death of humanity.
Wheee! On the plus side, in straight satiric terms, the concept is classic and the comic pacing make it easy to buy: It plays on the dreadful premonition nearly all of us must have at this point that our leaders are totally out of their depth, and overrides our psychological self-preservation instinct that makes us believe someone, surely, will ride to the rescue at the last minute. That’s not entirely the zeitgeist; in the conformist Fifties, for example, Invasion of the Body-Snatchers pulled the same trick. (I’m sure everyone over 12 knew the happy ending was a commercial necessity.) So you have to give McKay (and David Sirota, whose idea it apparently was) credit for that.
On the downside, Don’t Look Up does get bogged down at times, and I fear a lot of it is due to star bloat: There are simply so many celebrities involved (I didn’t even recognize Michael Chiklis!) that I suspect McKay felt obliged to give them all room to make an impression, and while some turns are funny, they’re mostly not germane. I’m sorry, I love Meryl Streep, but she’s just not a comic actress; she was funny in Postcards from the Edge but Adam McKay is no Mike Nichols. And while I appreciate how dorky and midwestern DiCaprio made the professor, particularly in his awkward romantic interlude with Blanchett’s glam harpy, it’s more of an E-for-effort situation — there are many less well-known actors who could have wrung real laughs from that situation rather than Oh-I-see-what-he’s-doing. (Poor Jennifer Lawrence remains stuck in her default mode with an added layer of existential fear — a panic pixie dream girl — but that’s really all the role requires.)
The only real winner in the star lottery is Mark Rylance, who creates a fabulous monster of self-regard who only really engages other people when he senses an ego threat; with his strangulated voice, slightly demented eyes, and a Malcolm Gladwell, pseudo-self-effacing physical presence that just makes you want to slap the shit out of him, Rylance is the one actor here in real Strangelove territory.
But you have to consider it a success. It does it was supposed to do: namely, show us in a way we can understand why our system just can’t handle the apocalypse. I’m not sure whether I like or dislike the touches that are meant to pull back the curtain a little further and show what a goddamn tragedy that is — inserts of animals living their lives, unaware of the coming cataclysm, and scenes where ordinary people break out of their media- and politics-enforced stupor and glimpse the grim reality. And, to be honest, I’m not sure whether I feel that way because I’m ambivalent as a critic, or because I’m scared and gut-sick as an American and a human being.