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'Don't Look Up' review: A huge cast and a huge mess

Adam McKay brings together a massive ensemble in 'Don't Look Up,' a slapdash, overlong satire.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in 'Don't Look Up'.
(Image: © Netflix)

Our Verdict

Despite plenty of ingredients for satire and a mammoth group of A-Listers, 'Don't Look Up' flounders under its own weight.

For

  • - The massive cast gives their all to sell the material
  • - A few supporting players, such as Melanie Lynskey and Jonah Hill, stand out
  • - Some of the jokes — including a clever running gag — do work

Against

  • - Tries to balance satire with earnest sentimentality, failing at both
  • - So many characters lead it to being a good 20 minutes too long
  • - Story tries to do too much, sacrifices a sharper focus

With Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy — the first and still best feature film from director Adam McKay — there was so much extra footage that the DVD featured an entirely separate story, Wake Up, Ron Burgundy!. As McKay has continued his career with award-winning films like The Big Short and Vice, this kind of ambition has proven to be as vast as it is impossible to rein in. This has ultimately led to Don't Look Up, a messy blend of social satire and a desperately earnest plea for sanity.

Don’t Look Up is based on this question: what if a planet-killing comet was headed for Earth, in just six months, and no one really gave a hoot? In the age of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, it's wishful thinking to to presume this couldn’t happen, of course. 

The movie kicks off with PhD candidate Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) and her mentor Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) discovering the comet before realizing a) it’s on a collision course with Earth and b) we’re not likely to live to tell the tale. Their frantic attempt to encourage action, if not existential fear, among the citizenry of the world leads them to the world of cable news with hosts portrayed by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett, and even the White House, with its dismissive president (Meryl Streep) and her obnoxious son turned Chief of Staff (Jonah Hill).

Don’t Look Up is not wanting for massive star power — the aforementioned ensemble is filled out with Timothée Chalamet, Rob Morgan, Mark Rylance and Ariana Grande. Meanwhile, McKay’s comic track record is such that throughout the 145-minute runtime, there are solid laughs (including a couple of surprising and clever running gags). 

McKay’s own influences seem clear enough too: classic movies like Dr. Strangelove and Network are the underpinning of his attacks on American politicians and mainstream media. It’s not that those institutions don’t deserve skewering, but the targets are so easy now that the real world seems far beyond satire. Even some of the better performances — such as Hill’s riff on Donald Trump Jr. — represent such low-hanging creative fruit that it’s as if the fruit isn’t even hanging on a branch but lying on the ground for anyone to pick up.

Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry in 'Don't Look Up'.

Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry in 'Don't Look Up.' (Image credit: Netflix)

When Don't Look Up succeeds — about a 50/50 success rate overall — it’s largely thanks to the fiercely committed performances. With Randall, DiCaprio dips into the same intense mania and fury he has captured so well in past performances, but when he’s more hemmed-in and almost debilitatingly anxious the Oscar-winner does a very effective job of embodying Randall’s aw-shucks Midwestern Everyman being seduced by the pull of flash-in-the-pan media stardom. 

Among the larger ensemble, the standout is Melanie Lynskey, as Randall’s calmer-than-she-should-be wife, as effective at saying a lot with a look as she is with a line of dialogue. There aren’t really any slackers among the cast, even if some seem more chosen just because of their fame than anything else. (Nothing against Ariana Grande or her scene partner Scott Mescudi, but their subplot is one of many that could easily have been trimmed.)

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Don't Look Up'.

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Don't Look Up.' (Image credit: Netflix)

It is to Don't Look Up's credit that it’s trying, very hard, to do a lot of things. Parts of the movie want very badly to be spiky satire, such as the depiction of breathless morning shows as well as Rylance’s tech giant who says he wants to change humanity without seemingly having any humanity himself. But Don’t Look Up can’t reconcile the satire with its honest and open sentimentality, which is presented sincerely without being terribly compelling. 

There are worse creative flaws than having a reach larger than your grasp, but that’s what plagues Don’t Look Up from start to finish. It’s never fully clear whether McKay wants to lean harder on satirical or sentimental elements. Say what you will about Dr. Strangelove or Network, but they were cynical films to the end, thus strengthening their gut-punch endings.

Don’t Look Up tries for a similarly grim ending that's then undercut with a couple more easy jokes that seem to exist to ensure it isn’t too dark. Don’t Look Up may well have its heart in the right place and boasts an ensemble as massive as it is willing to sell every word of Adam McKay’s sprawling, ungainly script. Yet for a satire, this movie’s too cuddly in the end. The same shrewd nastiness on display in some of McKay’s straighter comedies could’ve been a lot more effective here too.

Don't Look Up will release in select theaters on Dec. 10. It will be available to stream on Netflix on Dec. 24.