Stanley Kubrick made Dr. Strangelove, a quintessential black comedy of the 1960s starring Peter Sellers as a treatise against the uneasy relationship between America and Russia’s nuclear arms race.
It’s one of the driest modern comedic films with a biting screenplay and pitch-perfect acting that fully realizes its auteur’s vision and works on numerous levels for casual as well as fully engaged audiences.
Adam McKay, the filmmaker behind several of this generation’s most beloved comedies, must be a huge fan of Kubrick’s seminal classic, as his latest feature takes a similar approach to modern politics and the public’s relative disinterest in the possibility for natural global catastrophes.
Don’t Look Up is the third in a series of sardonic, topical films from McKay and his first collaboration with Netflix, an overly stylized movie that aims to be far cleverer than it actually is and misses the mark about half the time as the comedian strives to make too many social and political points.
Oscar winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as a pair of Michigan State University scientists who discover a massive comet on a direct collision course with planet Earth that will wipe out all civilization. Although this is the basic premise behind disaster films like Armageddon and Deep Impact, McKay’s film takes a much calmer, more esoteric approach more in keeping with Kubrick’s passive-aggressive approach to message-based storytelling in Strangelove.
Lawrence makes her cinematic return after several years off with her trademark sarcasm cranked up to an 11. The Academy Award winner relishes every opportunity to sink her teeth into cutting remarks written by McKay that seem targeted at other characters in the film but are truly meant for audience members at home to reflect on their own world view.
By contrast, DiCaprio has the more mellow of the two lead performances, if such a thing is possible and masks his natural charm and good looks behind poor hair and shoddy glasses to allow a quiet, nuanced character to emerge. His Randall suffers from several psychological maladies from anxiety to depression that give DiCaprio a wide berth from which to play his most skittish role and often the most amusing character on screen.
The film boasts an impressive ensemble cast with Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett being the perfect foils for DiCaprio as a morning talk-show team that challenges his morality and sanity in a Network-esque fashion, while Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill are more frustratingly over-the-top as the inept president and her son, the chief of staff, meant to exaggerate the trivialities of the Trump administration.
McKay actually has an impressive screenplay that is more sardonic and cutting than either of his Oscar-nominated films The Big Short and Vice. But as a director, he fails to bring his own writing to life consistently by keeping audiences out of the joke for far too long at moments and being overly ambitious in the editing room.
Don’t Look Up jumps back and forth between scenes at a rapid-fire pace in an attempt to jar audiences awake to the messages McKay espouses in his narrative, but he goes to this well far too often so that it becomes messy and unnecessarily convoluted.
A big swing from an award-contending director with the most star-studded cast this season, Don’t Look Up likely won’t receive the accolades that Netflix might have hoped for when the studio acquired the project from Paramount Pictures and spent $75 million to make the film. There’s too much talent involved to completely count the picture out of races, but it’s unlikely that Netflix will push too hard with the more well-received drama The Power of the Dog also in the fold for the streamer.
McKay’s film has a lot of individual moments that make Don’t Look Up a terrific black comedy warning about political and social divisiveness in a way that reflects Strangelove. But it’s terribly inconsistent in both its comedy and narrative structure, which makes the feature a frustrating film to watch.