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When persuading someone to change their mind on a major topic, what’s being said isn’t always quite as important as how it’s said. If a person feels attacked or disrespected or condescended to, they’ll turn off their brain and block out the most rational, correct arguments on principle alone. Homo sapiens are odd, emotional creatures, more amenable to a convincing pitch than poorly presented rightness. It’s why we vote for the guy we’d gladly have as a drinking buddy over the somewhat alienating candidates with a firmer grasp on the issues. It’s why we feel heartbreak when the worst person we know makes a great point.
Adam McKay’s new satire Don’t Look Up, a last-ditch effort to get the citizens of Earth to give a damn about the imminent end of days spurred by the climate crisis, appears to be at least somewhat aware of this defect in human nature. It’s all about the difficulty of compelling the uninterested to care, in this instance about a gargantuan comet hurtling toward the Earth on a collision course of imminent obliteration – an emphatic if rather ill-suited metaphor. (Everyone’s blasé about global heating in part because it’s so gradual, because it isn’t a force of instant destruction with a due date in an immediate future we’ll all live to see.) Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence portray astronomers Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky, flummoxed to find that no one’s all that alarmed about the “planet-killer” they’ve discovered – not the grinning daytime cable-news dummies played by Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett, not the White House led by Trump-styled president Meryl Streep and not the American people.
McKay evinces a clear understanding that some measure of this apathy comes from Dr Mindy’s dry approach in spite of his message’s gravity, the crucial facts and figures boring chief of staff Jonah Hill into mock-sleep. But the director suffers from a variant of the same problem himself, putting off even the audiences inclined to agree with his stances through an ineffective delivery. As opposed to the stammering of the panic-attacked Mindy, McKay browbeats at high decibels; his technique is much closer to Dibiasky’s on-the-air screaming that we’re all going to die. Except that his script states the obvious as if everyone else is too stupid to realize it and does so from a position of lofty superiority that would drive away any partisans who still need to be won over.
Fingers point in every direction, only for the blame to boomerang back to the mindset this film embodies. The easy potshots at celebrity culture and our fixation on it – mostly in the form of a bubbleheaded pop star named Riley Bina, played by good sport Ariana Grande – ring hollow in a production packed to bursting with attention-grabbing A-listers. The big bad media proves unhelpful, more interested in salacious clickbait than honest reportage, though the script also relies on the mass communication machine as the one thing capable of turning the tide of public opinion. Most damningly smug of all is McKay’s idea of reg’lar folks, from Dibiasky’s center-right parents (“We’re in favor of the jobs the comet will create,” they inform her before allowing her in the house) to the veteran tapped to pilot the hail-mary mission in space (Ron Perlman as a racist drunkard who addresses “both kinds” of Indians, “the ones with the elephants and the ones with the bow and arrows”).
It’s all reminiscent of the noxious focus-group coda to McKay’s previous film Vice, and the implied sneer at the Trumpite blurting out “libtard” as well as the millennial who’d rather see the new Fast and Furious movie. McKay is so un-shy about expressing his blanket contempt that one starts to wonder who this could possibly be for. The only group simpatico to its repellent self-celebratory attitude would be the pocket of liberalism on that same ideological footing, estranging others ostensibly on their side with an air of superiority. The toothless comedy has both the tone and reach of a political Facebook meme sent by a well-meaning elder relative, the point less to critique than reaffirm that we all hate the same sorts of people.
The character making it out of this film least-scathed is Timothée Chalamet’s Yule, a young skate rat hanging out around the hometown to which Dibiasky eventually returns. A soft-spoken and soulful kid, he’s an ex-evangelical still figuring out what his faith means to him, philosophically adrift but self-assured enough to stick up for himself when she offhandedly says something callous during the fling that sparks between them. He gets the one emotional beat that works in its context, as he does the courtesy of saying a final prayer before the apocalypse hits, a moment so affecting due to McKay’s willingness to consider Yule’s humanity. This scene stands out as an anomaly in its power to move, not just sentimentally but in terms of alignment. As the first instance compelling an audience to invest in any of these characters or the beliefs they represent, it’s the only time Earth seems to be worth preserving.