Don’t Look Up review: Netflix’s star-studded end of the year saga

Don't Look Up
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Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Adam McKay, Meryl Streep, the end of the world – what could go wrong? Er, glad you asked.

There’s precious little question here that director Adam McKay hasn’t been afforded every tool he needed or wanted to make his new comedy, Don’t Look Up. Roles from top to bottom are filled with quality actors, with Oscar-winners Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio at the top of the bill. Furthermore, there’s a hefty amount that looks like it’s been poured into the visual effects, and the locked running time of around two hours and 20 minutes suggests Netflix executives were not hanging around the editing suite with pairs of scissors in their back pocket.

What an oddly straightforward satire it’s thus got for its $75m or so that it’s cost to bring the movie to life then. It all starts with real promise. Student Kate Dibiasky and astronomer Dr Randall Mindy – that’s Lawrence and DiCaprio – discover, with a tip of the hat to Armageddon and Deep Impact, that the world is going to be hit by a planet-killing comet just over six months down the road. They believe this news is important enough to warrant the immediate attention of the US government, but find themselves waiting outside the office of Meryl Streep’s President Janie Orlean for hours, as she battles a domestic crisis. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

It’s a small moment, but a very funny one, and just the kind of target that McKay – coming off the back of The Big Short and Vice – has become expert at hitting. But it’s also an easy target in this case, and the film never really gets more ambitious that that. Instead, it just gets bigger, without getting that much more interesting.

McKay’s script thus tells of a world obsessed with celebrity, social media, and a Trump-esque President, where all of this isn’t enough to turn the heads of the planet towards actually doing something tangible enough about it. It’s best manifested by the excellent Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as the hosts of a major American news show, and Jonah Hill, as the President’s chief and staff. And son. There’s a lot of humour there, and again, the smaller the film is, the more effective it feels.

Then, though, McKay broadens his attack to corporations, channelled through Mark Rylance’s Peter Isherwell of a huge company called Bash. Where others smell fear, he smells resources and profit, all presented with a calm voice and shiny white teeth.

It matters not where you sit on the political spectrum to see where McKay is coming from, as consistently his film serves up relatively easy shots, that he coats with occasional flashes of terrific comedy. But the problem is it all starts to fizzle. Characters go down odd paths, time moves on, and the same points are made over and over. The scale of Don’t Look Up means McKay can call on someone like Ron Perlman to play a stuck-in-the-70s potentially hero, or Timothee Chalamet in a pretty forgettable role. Yet it’s a good way from the end where it all starts to feel far less than its parts.

As I pondered why it wasn’t quite landing, I couldn’t help but think that McKay packed far more punch and wallop into the end credits of one of his earlier films, The Other Guys, that he ultimately musters here. It’s juggling a lot of obvious anger and despair, and whilst mainstream films I believe are a very good place to have the conversations he’s seemingly looking to have here, there’s little in Don’t Look Up to woo one side over to the other, and nor is there enough in it to make it soar as a comedy. It’s a film reflecting the current status quo in the world, with a few good jokes.

Which means ultimately it rises and falls on how effective a laugh-generator it is, the other tool in McKay’s armoury. Here too, it runs out of steam. It’s never dull, and there’s a glorious moment right at the end worth sticking it all for, but it all – for a film of such resource – feels safe, within tramlines, and a bit ‘it’ll do’. Not dull, certainly, but frustrating. I couldn’t help but think with half the budget, fewer stars and a tighter focus, there might have been a better film in this.

Don’t Look Up arrives on Netflix on December 24th.

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