A massively destructive comet — five to 10 kilometers wide — barrels toward Earth. It's scheduled to hit Earth in six months, destroying all of the planet's life. Extinction looms.
Writer/director Adam McKay thinks that’s funny -- in a satirical way, of course. But whether everyone else is laughing remains to be seen -- not because audiences are likely to be shaken by the prospect of global demise but because McKay plucks too much low-hanging fruit. He takes bold swings at familiar targets — the media can be easily diverted by celebrities, for example.
McKay (The Big Short) knows how to find absurd twists in serious subjects. He makes wide-ranging comedies with a free-form feel. Here, he offers what might be regarded as mini-takes on a major theme that suggests current climate concerns: Wake up or be doomed.
But turning his movie into a parade of scenes that recall movies such as Network and Dr. Strangelove doesn't work to his advantage. Don't Look Up is a movie infused with trace elements of better predecessors.
McKay employs a large cast, turning a team of big-name actors into ensemble players. The list: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, and Meryl Streep.
He finds room for Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi -- not to mention Jonah Hill, Timothee Chalamet, and Mark Rylance.
As much as it has one, DiCaprio and Lawrence occupy the film's center. Looking plump and nerdy, DiCaprio plays Randall Mindy, an astronomer who teaches at a Michigan university.
Lawrence appears as Kate Dibiasky, one of Mindy's grad students, Kate discovers the comet that's hurtling toward Earth.
Duly alarmed, Mindy and Dibiasky travel to Washington to inform the president, a preoccupied hack played by Streep. Streep's Jeanie Orlean worries about saving a jeopardized Supreme Court nominee who has been caught in a porn scandal. Hill plays her patronizing chief of staff.
Frustrated, Mindy and Dibiasky turn to the media, a morning TV show hosted by an aggressively genial team (Tyler Perry and Blanchett) who spend more time on a celebrity break-ups than on looming catastrophe.
And when they do turn to the comet, they try to establish Mindy as a lovable scientist with what just might be a whacky theory.
Blanchett's Brie Evantee struck me as a riff on the character played by Faye Dunaway in Network, an ambitious, amoral, thrill-seeking woman who turns Mindy's head away from the loyal wife he's left in Michigan with their two teenage sons.
Mindy eventually breaks ranks with the power brokers to give a Howard Beal-like speech intended to shock an over-entertained public out of its slumber.
After much hemming and hawing, the US opts to send a tough-guy astronaut (Ron Perlman) into space to blow up the comet. McKay also introduces a tech company entrepreneurial genius (Mark Rylance in a gem of a performance) who has his own ideas about how to save the planet.
McKay knows how to mine (perhaps over-mine) scenes for amusement and, as the movie progresses, the satirical strokes become bolder and more alarming -- at least that must have been the intent. The populace divides over whether the comet is actually on its way or whether it's another hoax.
The anti-comet folks adopt a slogan ("Don't Look Up") and wear red baseball caps. Remind you of anything?
If you see the movie, stay through the credits for an epilogue that ties up a loose end that otherwise would have been left dangling.
Did I laugh? Occasionally. Were some of the performances dead on? Sure. After all, McKay’s working with a great cast.
But Don’t Look Up could be a case of misguided effort: It's possible that reality already is so ripe with extremes that it no longer can be satirized — or perhaps satirical efforts must be so keenly focused that absurdity is handled piece-by-piece.
As for the whole ball of wax? Well, as someone once said of a particularly brazen tabloid. It can't be parodied. All you have to do is quote it. Sounding as if you’re quoting it — which often is the case with Don’t Look Up — isn’t enough.