The Films of 2021: Don’t Look Up (dir by Adam McKay)

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In 2010, after making audiences laugh with films like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers, director Adam McKay released The Other Guys.  A spoof of buddy cop films, The Other Guys featured Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as two lovably incompetent but well-intentioned cops who took down a corrupt investor played by Steve Coogan.  It was a funny movie and, along with Anchorman and Talladega Nights, it revealed that McKay was one of the few directors who understood how to best capture Ferrell’s style of comedy.  And yet, the film ended on a bit of an odd note as the end credits were accompanied with statistics on how much money Wall Street executives were getting paid while the average American struggled to keep up with their bills.  It suggested that McKay meant for Coogan’s somewhat cartoonish villain to be taken seriously.

McKay followed up The Other Guys with Anchorman 2, which had some funny moments but which was also overlong, spent a good deal of time railing against corporate sponsorship of the news, and took a jarringly serious approach to a subplot in which Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy was rendered blind.  In retrospect, it’s easy to see how The Other Guys and Anchorman 2 both lay the foundation for what would become McKay’s signature style.  The end credits for The Other Guys revealed that McKay felt he could change the world through comedy and, at the time, there was actually something charmingly naïve about his belief that he could use the end credits to turn the audience into activists.  Anchorman 2‘s excessive length and its strained attempts at being meaningful (particularly when compared to the pure fun of the first film) revealed a somewhat less charming side to McKay’s activist vision.

This all led to 2015’s The Big Short, a film in which McKay mixed broad comedy with strained drama and attempted to tell the story of the 2007 financial crisis.  It was a mess of a film, featuring Ryan Gosling introducing famous people to explain complex financial concepts.  It was also a film that occasionally attempted to be a serious tear-jerker, featuring poor old Steve Carell as an investor who still hadn’t gotten over the suicide of his brother.  At the time, The Big Short was acclaimed by some and hated by others.  Interestingly enough, some of the most liberal film critics out there dismissed the film as being smug and preachy.  There were other critics who thought the film was brilliant.  The Academy appreciated the film, nominating it for Best Picture and giving McKay an Oscar for his screenplay.  McKay, for his part, encouraged everyone watching the Oscars to vote for Bernie Sanders.

In retrospect, of course, The Big Short wasn’t very good.  A lot of the film’s so-called revolutionary style was lifted from a British film called 24-Hour People (which, make of it what you will, starred The Other Guys‘s Steve Coogan) and the film’s mocking use of celebrities was nothing that hadn’t already been done before.  Worst of all were McKay’s attempts at drama.  I’ll always remember the random scene in which Steve Carell is seen crying to Marisa Tomei about his dead brother.  “He said he was feeling sad and I tried to give him money!” Carell says.  The McKay of old would have understood that this was the point where the scene needed Tomei to deadpan, “That’s probably why he killed himself.”  However, The Big Short was directed by the new, serious McKay.

Why was The Big Short such a success with the Oscars?  In a pattern that would repeat itself, it was a film that preached to an appreciative audience of the already-converted.  No one decided to vote for Bernie Sanders as a result of watching The Big Short.  However, those who were already planning on voting for him left the film even more determined to do so.  As well, by taking place in 2007 and 2008, The Big Short allowed viewers to blame the sluggish economy on the former president as opposed to the one who was currently sitting in the White House.

In 2018, McKay returned with Vice, in which he brought his new signature style to the life of Dick Cheney.  Vice received even worse reviews than The Big Short as it attempted to get audiences to care about someone who hadn’t exactly been relevant for the last ten years.  Again, though, Vice was appreciated by a vocal group of critics and it was the second McKay film to receive a best picture nomination.  2018, of course, was a notably weak film as far as Oscar contenders were concerned.  Also, undoubtedly, there were many people who felt that nominating Vice would “own the cons.”  Of course, if those people (or McKay, for that matter) understood how deeply unpopular Cheney was with most right-wingers, they might have thought twice.  If anything, Vice’s portrayal of Cheney being a heartless insider who sacrificed American lives for his own personal and financial gain could have been written by Donald Trump.  As well, quite a few audiences members walked out of the theater thinking that Cheney had a point when he said that whatever he did, he did it to keep Americans safe.  One need only compare Oliver Stone’s Nixon biopic to Adam McKay’s Cheney biopic to see the difference between a filmmaker who makes movies about politics and an activist who allows his politics to make his movies.

Vice featured a mid-credits scene in which a focus group, having watched the film, got into a fight over whether or not Cheney was a hero.  During the fight, two girls were seen looking at their phone and talking about how they can’t wait to see the new Fast and Furious film.  That scene pretty summed up McKay’s view of the American public.  He may want to save you but that doesn’t mean that he thinks much of you.

That attitude leads us directly to McKay’s latest film, Don’t Look Up.  I fully understand that you may be wondering whether it was truly necessary to devote 1,000 words to Adam McKay’s pre-Don’t Look Up career to review his latest film.  I would argue that it was because it’s impossible to really understand Don’t Look Up unless you understand how Adam McKay has gone from directing broad but enjoyably silly comedies to being one of the most self-important filmmakers working today.  Don’t Look Up is not a film that could have been made without the undeserved accolades that were given to The Big Short and ViceDon’t Look Up is the ultimate Adam McKay film, a towering testament to McKay’s misplaced belief that the best way to convert audiences is to hit them over the head with a sledgehammer.  The flaws are obvious but they’re the same flaws that many chose to overlook in The Big Short and ViceDon’t Look Up is not very good but, as with his previous two Oscar-nominated films, that probably won’t matter when the Academy Award nominations are announced on February 8th.

The time is the near future.  Kate Dibiansky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) are two low-level astronomers who discover that a comet is heading straight towards the Earth.  “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” as Kate puts it.  “I’M SO SCARED!” as Dr. Minty puts it.  They go to the White House but the President (Meryl Streep) is more concerned with her approval ratings and her son, the chief of staff (Jonah Hill), is a weirdo who keeps talking about how hot his mother is.  Kate and Randall go on a morning show but the hosts. Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry), are only interested in repeating positive news.  (We all know how much news stations go out of their way to avoid panicking people.)  When Kate has a breakdown, she becomes a meme.  Randall, on the other hand, briefly becomes a celebrity and has an affair Brie.  While a strange tech billionaire (Mark Rylance) plots to harvest the comet for its minerals, Kate gets a job at a grocery store and has a weird romance with a religious skater named Yule (Timothee Chalamet).  As it slowly becomes impossible to ignore the sight of the comet approaching Earth, the President orders her supporters to “DON’T LOOK UP!”  Some insist on looking up.  Some look down.  Fights break out as people argue online.  Ariana Grande sings a song to encourage people to look up.  Meanwhile, those who always knew what was happening prepare for the world to end because you can do anything in a montage.

Don’t Look Up was envisioned as a commentary on America’s response to the climate crisis.  It was originally meant to be released during the 2020 presidential election, hence Meryl Streep playing a president who was obviously meant to be a combination of Donald and Ivanka Trump.  When DiCaprio shouts that “this administration” doesn’t care about protecting the Earth from the comet, it’s obvious which administration he was actually supposed to be referring to.  However, because of the pandemic, Don’t Look Up wasn’t released until 2021 and, as such, its portrayal of the White House being occupied by an amoral former television star doesn’t carry quite the same bite that it would have in 2020.  Because of the delay in the film’s release, many have reinterpreted Don’t Look Up as being a commentary on the COVID pandemic.

Well, regardless, of how you interpret the film, it doesn’t work.  It takes all of the flaws of The Big Short and Vice and it multiplies them several hundred times.  It’s a big, messy, and rather smug film.  The editing is self-consciously flashy, the 138-minute running time feels excessive, and McKay’s attempts to generate dramatic tension reveal that he hasn’t learned much since that scene with Carell and Tomei in The Big Short.  It’s been a while since Leonardo DiCaprio has been this bad (and this shrill) in a film while Meryl Streep acts up a storm without really making much of an impression beyond, “Hey, there’s Meryl overacting.”  On the plus side, I did like the scenes between Jennifer Lawrence and Timothee Chalamet but there aren’t many of them and one gets the idea that the only reason why Yule was included in the script was so Chalamet could join the cast.

Politically, this is a film that preaches to the converted.  Now, if you’re one of the converted, that may not matter to you.  You can watch the film and say, “That’s exactly the way it is!”  You can even say, as many have, the it’s impossible to change the minds of climate deniers so why should anyone even waste their time trying to come up with a persuasive film.  That’s a legitimate argument but it goes against the stated aims of the filmmakers.  Both McKay and screenwriter David Sirota have said that the goal of the film is to try to convert climate agnostics.  McKay recently gave an interview in which he said that his hope was that Joe Manchin would watch the film because he or a family member liked someone in the cast and that Manchin would later wake up, sweating in fear.  However, the film is so heavy-handed and so contemptuous of just about everyone on the planet (even those who look up) that it’s hard to imagine it changing anyone’s mind.  The possibility of Manchin or any other politician turning against coal power after watching Don’t Look Up is probably about as likely as an atheist converting to Christianity after watching God’s Not Dead.  If anything Don’t Look Up is the secular version of the type of films that people watch in church basements.

“I’M SO SCARED!” multiple characters are heard to shout in scenes that are obviously meant to pay homage to Network‘s cry of “I’M AS MAD AS HELL AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!”  Indeed, the film owes an obvious debt to both Network and Dr. Strangelove but McKay doesn’t seem to have learned the most important lessons that those films have to offer.  Dr. Strangelove may have featured a bunch of dumb people in Washington and it may have been full of characters with silly names but, as a director, Stanley Kubrick wisely took a straight-forward approach to his material.  Kubrick directed in an almost semi-documentary manner, giving the film a realistic feel regardless of how crazy things got onscreen.  The fact that the film played out in such a matter-of-fact, non-flashy style is why it was so effective.  If the action had stopped so Peter Sellers could deliver a 9-minute speech about the evils of nuclear war, it’s doubtful the film would be remembered today.   (Famously, Kubrick removed a custard pie fight from the finale because he realized it would take away from the film’s realism.  One doubts that McKay would have been capable of such restraint.)

As for Network, Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet both understood why it was important that Howard Beale be the made prophet of the airwaves but they also understood that there could only be one Howard Beale.  Only one man could rant and rave and be killed for low ratings.  If every character had been Howard Beale, Network would have been unwatchable.  With Don’t Look Up, McKay fills the movie with Howard Beales and it gets tedious.  The constant screams of “I’M SO SCARED!” become a sort of panic porn as opposed to being the calls for action that McKay seems to mean for them to be.

And yet, despite not being a very good movie, I have a feeling that Don’t Look Up will be nominated for Best Picture and it will be nominated for the same reason as The Big Short and Vice.  Politically, it has the right message for a very select audience.  It’s a film that will resonate with people who have a very specific way of viewing existence.  It may be a film that preaches to the converted but the converted love it.  It’s a film that appeals to those who are convinced that the world is going to end at any moment.  It’s a film for everyone who is pissed off that some people were more concerned about the next Fast and Furious film than they were with watching the latest political melodrama.

All of that said, perhaps the most interesting thing about Adam McKay’s politically-charged films is how ineffective they are.  The Big Short won an Oscar for McKay’s screenplay but Bernie Sanders twice lost the Democartic presidential nomination to candidates who were backed by Wall Street.  Indeed, much like Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, The Big Short today seems to be more likely to inspire someone to play the stock market than to rally against it.  As for Vice, Dick Cheney’s daughter is currently the media’s favorite Republican and Cheney himself was recently given a hero’s welcome when he returned to D.C.  Watching Don’t Look Up, you have to wonder how many people sympathized with the “I’M SO SCARED” crowd and how many people instead watched the rich and powerful boarding a spaceship and thought to themselves, “That’s who I want to be.”

Personally, I refuse to give up hope for Anchorman 3….

5 responses to “The Films of 2021: Don’t Look Up (dir by Adam McKay)

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