On “Murder,” one of The Office‘s funniest episodes, the employees at Dunder-Mifflin’s Scranton branch face catastrophe. The company’s economic situation is dire, and rumors of bankruptcy begin to float around the workspace. Of course, that could mean lost jobs, losses of paychecks and general bad tidings all around. The branch’s bumbling leader Michael Scott tries to assuage his co-workers with a dinky murder mystery cosplay game while sly straight-man Jim Halpert tries to rally enough information on the company’s impending collapse as he can to find some sense of truth.
Typically, Halpert is Scott’s steadying force, keeping the managerial jester from veering off the cliff of terrible decision-making. Though, in this episode, it’s Michael who’s got the answers. While Halpert rolls his eyes at the silly distraction, it’s Scott who sets him straight: in times of crisis, there needs to be a balance. You certainly need the seriousness to analyze what’s going on and the acceptance to do something about it, but you also need the optimism and, at times, the complete escapism, to keep you from drowning in unfiltered doom and gloom.
Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up completely misses the trees for the forest with his latest attempt to grapple with political and societal failure through attempted satire and righteous anger. His is a film so enamored with its own fury and so dispirited in its fellow countrymen that it fails to really say anything meaningful that life in the midst of a pandemic and a Donald Trump White House won’t already remind you on a daily basis. If you were completely clueless to the shocking reality that things haven’t been so great as of late, then McKay’s film might seem profound. If you are even vaguely aware of what’s going on in the news, Don’t Look Up will only serve as a refried reminder of the daily perils that populate the headlines.
The whole point of a comedy, in theory, is to make you laugh. The whole point of a drama is to get you to feel the right feeling. McKay often disregards the desire to make anyone even slightly chuckle at his super-serious comet frenzy, one where two scientists (Leonardo DiCaprio’s mawkish Dr. Randall Mindy, Jennifer Lawrence’s sardonic Kate Dibiasky) identify a meteor headed toward Earth at alarming speed. It’d be Armageddon if the globe didn’t do something about it, so they must set out to try and convince the world that, indeed, the sky is falling. The only problem is, to McKay, that we live in a society.
To him, it’s a society filled with MAGA pricks, internet memes, celebrity drama, morning talk shows and apathetic dopes who are enslaved to their phones. The President (Meryl Streep) is some sort of combo between Trump and Bill Clinton; the Mark Zuckerberg/Jeffrey Bezos/Elon Musk stand-in (Mark Rylance) is a soulless marionette who seems completely removed from reality (unless money is involved). If all of that feels a bit, y’know, on the nose, buckle in. The laughs begin to evaporate as the film’s gargantuan, somber runtime envelops its characters and plot, and the draining sense of cynicism depletes any desire to invest in McKay’s sermonizing.
McKay’s film has the energy of Abe Simpson yelling at a cloud and the profundity of a Bill Maher rant. The film reeks of Twitter brain, of the exhausting sensation of doom scrolling for two hours and expecting a series of infuriated social media posts will solve the world’s many, many problems. It might offer instant gratification, but it doesn’t make you feel any better or fix any of your problems.
It’s not that McKay’s worries about the climate crisis, the baffling issues of the pandemic, the scary war on fact and the mass media’s inability to discuss difficult topics are unfounded. It’s easy to spot the stripes on the zebra when it comes to counting all the litany of issues we’re going to face in the years and decades to come. He’s right to be upset at the way things are going, but he takes a weed whacker to virtually everyone in the audience rather than just accept the fact that we’re all trying our best. His film feels like a Hollywood blame game rather than a sharp analysis of the times we’re in; the film feels more interested in yelling at TikTok dancers and Fox News hosts than it does actually mapping out a way to combat the very things he’s angry about.
The film also feels incapable of dealing with the grand irony of its existence with the elephant in the room of spending nearly $50 million on two actors to scold the audience on how bad things are when that money, to be very blunt, probably could’ve gone to actually making the world a better place. If you’re a bit confused as to how a tonally confused $90 million Netflix movie is going to save us all from [insert 2021 problem], shrugs abound.
As badly as it has been to live through a pandemic, a U.S. Capitol insurrection and many of the other headaches that have accompanied the day and age, comedy has been one of those constants that have helped all of us breathe a little easier. McKay’s earlier films have always done a world of good in that department, and his last two, more serious works (The Big Short and Vice) did a much better job of zeroing in his frustrations in edifying ways that actually felt helpful rather than helpless.
Don’t Look Up is an aggressive, unfunny misfire from a filmmaker who used to have the patent on feature-length humor. By the time we get to DiCaprio’s Howard Beale moment of revelation, it feels forced and obvious. McKay’s film embodies the same struggles Saturday Night Live found when trying to parody Trumpism. Sometimes, the truth is stranger than fiction. Even if we can’t exactly laugh at it, we can still laugh at other things to help us cope. If McKay really wants to make a difference, he should go back to his roots. Don’t Look Up isn’t going to help anything or anybody anytime soon, but another comedy might.