I think it goes without saying that Adam McKay’s movies are about as subtle as a fart in a bathtub and despite their seemingly wide-reaching appeal, their purpose may not be that obvious. Even though he has made a departure from making out-and-out comedies like The Other Guys or Anchorman and moved towards making socially and politically aware satires like The Big Short and Vice, it is my belief that viewers by and large did not attune themselves to what he is currently doing, which is why his movies are weirdly polarizing. And his latest outing, Don’t Look Up, is no different in this regard.
Set in a fictitious world adjacent to our own, McKay’s newest film tells a story of a group of researchers led by a mediocre, scientifically checked-out professor, Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), who discover a comet hurtling towards Earth, whose collision with our lovely planet will irreversibly wipe out all semblances of life. Alarmed, they attempt to get in touch with the government and the president (Meryl Streep) who is more preoccupied with her own political future than the survival of the species. The media spin this story in their own way, the society turns everything into a set of memes and eventually an eccentric billionaire genius (Mark Rylance) steps in to save the planet… until it turns out that the comet is a veritable smorgasbord of precious metals and the like. Societies polarize, fake news and disinformation out-shout rational thinking and all hell breaks loose. You get the picture.
It doesn’t really take a rocket scientist to see that this entire affair is a thinly veiled allegory for the climate change and a satirical look at how we are currently responding to an impending global catastrophe that will inevitably render parts of our planet uninhabitable and foster global conflict and widespread destitution, all within our lifetime. It equally doesn’t take a genius to see that Mark Rylance’s character is modelled as a hybrid of Elon Musk with a hint of Steve Jobs, just as it is immediately obvious that Meryl Streep’s take on the US president is supposed to be Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton rolled into one incompetent-antichrist-in-chief. The titular “don’t look up” slogan put on familiar baseball caps and spun to engulf the global society in a war of disinformation is also supposed to ring a bell and you won’t get a gold star if you get it right, because it’s all so damn obvious.
However, what needs to be said – because vast swathes of the viewership seem to get this so wrong – Don’t Look Up is not supposed to be funny. In fact, I would venture a guess than none of McKay’s recent movies, i.e. The Big Short and Vice, are intended as comedies. Granted, these movies are made using comedic vocabulary because this is what McKay knows best as a screenwriter and a director, but they are not made with an express intent to make people laugh. If anything, they are meant to put you in a discombobulated state of not knowing whether to laugh or cry. McKay has grown tired of making straight-up comedies and got royally pissed off with utter jackassery that has been going unpunished in various corners of our existence. He made us look at how greedy bankers ruined the global economy on a whim, got rich in the process and walked away scot-free. He made us sit there and see in excruciating detail how openly evil, twisted and sinister Dick Cheney’s vice-presidency under Bush was. And now he made us look at ourselves in the mirror and see how what we do to save the planet amounts to a grand total of not much.
I don’t know about you but when I’m watching his movies – digestible, quirky and self-aware as they are – I never have a great time. I emerge angry at the injustice and downright criminality of what we allow these people to get away with. McKay isn’t making light-hearted wink-wink-nudge-nudge satirical comedies. Instead, he is pointing a finger at how easy it was for hedge fund managers to swindle the working classes out of their savings, or in this case how we are almost literally all led by donkeys, as he confusedly asks you from the screen “Can you believe this horseshit?! Can you believe this is actually happening?!”
Adam McKay is no longer a comedian. He is an activist and Don’t Look Up is therefore suitably unsubtle for what it is intended to achieve. He’s not interested in making us think for a second. He is angry at all of us. He is furious with the state the planet is in, he can’t stand the fact that the political classes are seriously considering not doing much about fixing or mitigating an impending calamity, that some have the audacity to suggest it will be in their interest (I’m looking at you, Volodia!) or that some nations believe it is their right to continue ruining the planet because they didn’t get the chance to develop when other countries did. McKay is in no mood to crack jokes and he’s here to frustrate and mock. And he’s mocking all of us: the incompetent politicians who worry more about their careers than their civic duty, the one-percenters who think they can buy their way out of this and that it’s somehow not their problem to contribute in any way, the middle-class champagne socialists who think they do their part because they separate paper and plastic and occasionally go out for a vegan meal in their new Teslas, the brainwashed sheeple herding under any banner that points the finger at someone else or pretends the moon is made of cheese, the sanctimonious and narcissistic gen-Z-ers and their high-horse contempt that never translates into doing anything more than tweeting… the celebrities and their attention-seeking behaviour to the point of recording “Imagine” in their mansions to validate their existence… no-one is spared. McKay is mocking everyone.
Therefore, I find it fascinating that so many viewers manage to take this movie so personally. It’s honestly mind-boggling to see some folks take umbrage with Meryl Streep’s take on the president and even suggest the film might be sexist, or that McKay is somehow insensitive to some other groups. In all seriousness, just looking at how this movie is received proves him right. We are doomed. We cannot see past the unsubtle South Park-esque language of out-and-out mockery because we are too busy trying to find out how we can be personally victimized by it. I don’t think McKay is sexist or politically inclined in any way. I think he’s just tired of pretending that what the world has turned into isn’t getting on his nerves. And I honestly do appreciate this kind of conviction.
Yes. Don’t Look Up is ham-fisted and heavy-handed in what it is doing. Yes. It is mocking everyone and everything, so chances are it is mocking you as well. No, while it is occasionally genuinely funny, I don’t believe it is intended to function as a comedy. It is using the textbook of comedic expression as a blunt instrument with which the filmmaker is going to smack you across your face, repeatedly. And maybe in doing so he will eventually lose track of time and overstay his welcome, which will inevitably diminish the film’s central take-home message relating to the importance of maintaining and nurturing our close relationships and retaining basic spirituality as an anchor.
But it’s not a comedy so sitting down to watch Don’t Look Up and then complaining that it didn’t make you laugh is just plain wrong. Adam McKay hasn’t been in the business of making comedies for a while now and even if he gets Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Rylance, Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill to create wacky characters that are comical in design, they are working in service of angry political activism, which isn’t supposed to be funny. You wouldn’t expect Greta Thunberg to crack jokes whenever she is invited to speak somewhere? Well, Adam McKay is Greta Thunberg of Hollywood. He’s angry and determined to keep making movies whose allegorical reading will be obvious even to a certified moron. As I said in the opening paragraph – this movie is a fart in the bathtub. It’s noisy and enjoyable to those who love crass humour, and it stinks to high heavens. And he wants you to get off your backside and open the window. Or at least light a candle or something.