Filmmaker Adam McKay has specialized in a certain type of sociopolitical humor over his past few films, and boy, has America given him a lot of ammunition to work from in the past four years since his Dick Cheney movie, Vice. This time, he goes further into fiction — science fiction to be precise — than that movie and The Big Short, by creating a “what if?” scenario about how the America from maybe the last few decades might react to a cataclysmic extinction event.
Sure, it’s territory more in line with the films of Roland Emmerich, which certainly can be funny in their own way — not always intentionally — but McKay comes into Don’t Look Up with so much ammo that one might wonder how it was possible to fit all of those ideas into a mere 2 hours plus.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Kate Dibiasky, an astronomy grad student who discovers a large comet, nearly 9 kilometers across, orbiting the solar system. When her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) discovers that it’s heading on a collision course with Earth, they need to inform the White House, which is currently being run by Meryl Streep’s President Orlean, who seems uninterested in their horrifying discovery. Having no success convincing the government to intervene, the two scientists go on a press tour, which includes a disastrous visit to “The Daily Rip,” a morning show hosted by Jack and Brie (Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett), who seem equally oblivious as the comet threatens to hit earth in just six months.
That’s probably a great place to begin when describing what McKay was trying to do with Don’t Look Up. If you’ve ever followed McKay on social media, or seen his last two movies, you already know that a.) McKay can get very political and b.) He is no fan of the most conservative Republicans. At least he continues to use his writing talents and bent for politics to make people laugh, just as he did when he wrote for Will Ferrell’s President George W. Bush on Saturday Night Live and the duo’s stageplay, A Final Night with George W. Bush.
More importantly, McKay has assembled a cadre of thespians doing things we really haven’t seen many of them do before, whether it’s nerdy Leo or an even more-aggro-than-usual JLaw, and Blanchett playing a morning talk show hostess who acts dumber on camera than she is in real life is borderline genius casting. In general, the casting is nothing short of brilliant with Jonah Hill, who thankfully has returned to comedy to play the President’s son and Chief of Staff, Jason, who immediately starts butting heads with Lawrence’s character. Streep seems to relish in the fact that she’s given a role akin to a female Donald Trump. Personally, I liked seeing the great and highly underrated Rob Morgan (Mudbound) as Dr. Oglethorpe, the head of the country’s Space Defense force, and yet, probably the most genius casting of all is having Oscar winner Mark Rylance playing Peter Isherwell, a Elon Musk-like mega-billionaire who has come up with a plan not to destroy the comet but use its resources to make him even more money. There’s many other greats in McKay’s cast, including Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, and Melanie Lynskie, just to ensure that there isn’t a weak link among them.
There’s also a running throughline, involving Ariana Grande as (what else?) a pop star who is going through an emotional break-up with her rapper boyfriend (Kid Cudi) at the same time as the scientists are trying to convince people to listen to them about the impending danger. Incidentally, the film’s title comes from a movement trying to get those who don’t believe in the dangerous comet to “Just Look Up,” which leads to a conservative counter-movement called… well, you can guess, just as you can guess which narrative is more compelling to the public at large.
Because this is Below the Line, we need to talk about the crafts and the talented artisans McKay has hired to realize this crazy vision of his. We’ll start with the hair and makeup teams, who did such a great job helping the actors get into the wildly diverse characters they play. Hair Stylist Patricia Dehaney was part of the Oscar-winning team for McKay’s previous film Vice, and she’s joined by Makeup Department Head Liz Bernstrom to add to the work done by Matheson, which helps to make the actors, particularly Leo and JLaw, just look very different than what we’re used to. Some of that can also be attributed to Costume Designer Susan Matheson (another returnee from Vice), given the job to dress up the same variety of deliciously over-the-top characters.
Likewise, Production Designer Clayton Hartley, who has been working with McKay going back to Anchorman, has the opportunity to create so many great locations, put together with his art team and set decorators Kyra Friedman Curcio and Tara Pavoni. They clearly had fun doing so, leading to things like all the hilarious objects found around Orlean’s Oval Office or inventing one of those TGIFridays like chain restaurants merely to have rioters destroy it.
As with Aaron Sorkin’s new movie – reviewed earlier today – the editing by Hark Corwin is key in making the pacing of McKay’s humor work, and few will be surprised to learn that Corwin was nominated for Oscars for editing both of McKay’s previous films. Corwin has a pretty heavy load of responsibilities not just in terms of the comedy but also the tension that’s created over the course of the impending disaster.
Probably the biggest and most noticeable aspect of McKay’s film will be the abundant use of Visual FX to bring to life all the science fiction elements of his film — a comet heading to earth, various spaceships, strange robots used as a plan to deflect the comet – all things that look as good as they might in any previous sci-fi disaster flick. Don’t Look Up looks like a very expensive movie, although apparently, a lot of that money went to its two stars (reportedly $50 million).
Thankfully, the results aren’t akin to Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, and it all works quite a bit better than what some may be expected. Even though this time of year tends to be all about awards and nominations, Don’t Look Up is a good way for McKay to keep in step with his other recent political comedies, while also returning to the flat-out sillier sense of humor, for which he first became known.
Don’t Look Up will get a limited theatrical release starting Dec. 10, and then be streaming on Netflix on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24.
All photos courtesy and copyright Netflix.