‘Don’t Look Up’ and the insufferable smugness of being

Director Adam McKay gathers a blockbuster cast to make the worst movie of the year

Brad Keefe
"Don't Look Up"

I tend to believe that a movie can only be “bad” inversely relative to its potential to be “good.” So a low-budget, direct-to-video movie with a C-list cast is usually about as good as you’d expect. It never had true potential to be bad.

“Don’t Look Up” boasts a roster of stars almost any film would envy, a literal who-isn’t-in-this-movie? level of casting. It’s also part of my favorite subgenre, the end-of-the-world comedy. (“Dr. Strangelove” remains my favorite movie to this day.)

Yet, by my above metrics, it is the worst movie I’ve seen this year, and it isn’t even close. To paraphrase your parents when you were a teenager: I’m not disappointed; I’m mad.

Before you think I mean “so bad it’s good” and are tempted to see it, please read on. If the world is indeed ending, there are better ways to spend two-and-a-half hours than sitting in a theater under a crashing wave of smug self-satisfaction punctuated by sporadic laughs.

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, whose return to the screen is handily and easily the best thing about this movie) is an astronomy grad student who makes a career-defining discovery of a comet, a moment that should have made her the next Edmond Halley, landing her a namesake comet of her own. But her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), does some calculations about the comet’s path, leading to a disconcerting discovery that makes Kate (and the audience) immediately feel the need to get stoned.

The two astronomers have discovered an extinction-level event with the comet on a collision course with humanity and need to warn the government, in this case, a self-involved president played by Meryl Streep and her idiot son (Jonah Hill). Weighing the political ramifications, they of course err on the side of what benefits them personally over the potential catastrophic ramifications to society and all involved.

In the spirit of just throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, the movie includes appearances from: Mark Rylance (how anyone can waste him in a film, I’ll never know, but here we are) as the weirdo tech figure standing in for Zuckerberg/Bezos; Cate Blanchett as a Fox News-type talking head who doesn’t care about anything but her career; and Ariana Grande as a caricature of celebrity cause-posturing in possibly the most talent-wasting role in all of history.

Are you not entertained? Let’s throw in Timothée Chalamet in the later acts as a vague cause dude-bro, because why not?

Much like our modern society, you could look at this movie on paper and wonder how the hell it could possibly go so wrong. I know I did.

First, foremost and forever, it’s not funny. After the last five years or so, I could not have been any more primed to laugh at the absurdity of our demise. I wanted that. Instead, I got a half-baked SNL cold open that went on for two-and-a-half hours. Add in that it’s a ham-fisted allegory for climate change that constantly asks, “Get it?” Yes, we get it. We all get it. The entirety of your target audience already gets it. Who is this movie for who doesn’t get it, exactly?

Here’s where I’ll say that I want both for a comedy to feel like it should be longer than 90 minutes and also be worthy of serious Oscar consideration, and I’m angry at director Adam McKay for setting both of these things back.

McKay and company’s targets are a pastiche of blame that certainly never approaches any level of self-reflection on how we actually ended up here. Broad shots are taken at egotistical, self-involved politicians who don’t care about the outcomes of their actions, a celebrity and social-media obsessed ecosystem that seeks simple answers to complex problems.

I don’t know if there’s ever been a movie made by people less self-aware and simultaneously judgmental of everyone but themselves than this one.

The best movies about the end-of-the-world turn the camera back on us and ask hard questions about how culpable we are in our own demise. This one just smugly points the blame on others.

The movie desperately wants to be a deeply thoughtful societal satire, and it’s at its worst when McKay thinks he’s pulling it off.

It wishes it was “Dr. Strangelove” or “Network,” or even (in its more low-brow moments) “Idiocracy” — and its failures to approach those levels make the gaps where the big laughs should have been even more awkward.

Oddly, it’s Lawrence, primarily functioning as the straight woman, who gets the most consistent laughs with a recurring call-back joke. It’s great and all but waiting 45 minutes between each laugh gets tiresome. If you want end-of-the-world belly laughs, watch the best disaster movie from the year “Independence Day” came out, “Mars Attacks.”

As a palate cleanser, I rewatched the underrated “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” which had better gallows humor, more heart and a much better take on how people might actually respond to knowing it will all end.

If all of this does still intrigue you, at least you can save your money. At the moment, “Don’t Look Up” is limited to theaters, but it drops on Netflix like a $75 million lump of coal on Christmas Eve.

Out of an abundance of caution, Netflix required COVID testing for all who attended the critics-only screening, and I took my test on-site just before the movie. Hours later, I found myself having a thought I have never had before or since: “God, I wish I had COVID right now.”

“Don’t Look Up”

Now playing in theaters

1 star out of 5