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President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) points beside a podium in front of the American flag in the Netflix film Don’t Look Up Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

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Don’t Look Up is a hellishly unfunny ride through The Discourse

Even wildly talented actors can’t save a movie that repeats arguments we have every day

There’s dark credibility to Don’t Look Up, director Adam McKay’s gallows humor Netflix comedy about the end of the world. In it, scientists discover that a planet-killing comet is heading directly for Earth, and our window for averting extinction is incredibly narrow. When this urgent news is brought to the United States government, the response is one that is extremely plausible: doing nothing.

This isn’t so much a profound insight as a reasonable conclusion drawn from current events. Recurring gun violence, civil rights crises, or the ongoing pandemic response are all proof positive for a political reality defined by inaction, where needles only move when lawmakers’ careers — or private sector profits — are at stake. Don’t Look Up has little to offer beyond this, and even fewer laughs.

The film begins with astronomy student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovering an unidentified comet. What starts as an exciting find for a budding astronomer quickly turns to horror as she and her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), calculate the comet’s trajectory, finding that it’s on a collision course with Earth.

Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as Kate Dibiasky and Randall Mindy sit in an empty cargo plane in Netflix’s Don’t Look Up Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Written by McKay from a story by the filmmaker and political wonk David Sirota, Don’t Look Up is a 138-minute tour through what we, for lack of a better term, can call The Discourse, the cultural-political attention economy through which major events are filtered by way of many competing interests. It starts at the top: The president (Meryl Streep) waves off Kate and Dr. Mindy’s news because she’s so consumed by political scandal that she can’t even meet with them for an entire day. She’s too busy figuring out how to respond to her Supreme Court nominee’s nudes being leaked.

Dismissed by the government, Kate and Dr. Mindy turn to the media. The reception isn’t any better. Traditional publications are interested only in social media engagement, and they back away under the threat of a lawsuit, while a daytime TV show is mostly interested in Randall’s meme-worthy good looks. For the general public, the meteor becomes a litmus test for personal politics.

Great performances keep Don’t Look Up afloat, if only barely. Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchett are delightfully banal talk show hosts, Timothée Chalamet is a late-game breath of fresh air as a born-again skater punk, and Lawrence and DiCaprio are both actors so talented that the hope that McKay can turn things around by the end never quite extinguishes.

Astronomers Dr. Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky sit in on a morning show called The Daily Rip, hosted by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, in Netflix’s Don’t Look Up. Photo: Niko Tavernise/Netflix

In all this, Don’t Look Up becomes a work of well-acted exhaustion. It’s not very interesting to see this cycle play out in a hypothetical context because this particular media circus is already repeated ad nauseum. McKay wastes his talented ensemble by having them labor in the service of virtually nothing, as his film has little to say about why we are trapped in these cycles, and it doesn’t seem to offer anything beyond the greatest hits of a bad few months online. If the jokes about daytime television, internet memes, or political ineptitude were funnier, this would be forgivable. Humor is subjective, but giving an example of Don’t Look Up’s specific jokes feels like a spoiler, depriving you of one of the three times you’ll likely experience a genuine laugh.

McKay’s previous satirical comedies The Big Short and Vice, while divisive, were clearly focused on the powerful. They were cynical works about the cynicism of American economics and politics, operating from the presumption that the audience for each had been kept in the dark on their subjects. This was easy to get on board with when The Big Short digestibly broke down the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis, and arguably less so when Vice delved into the career of former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Don’t Look Up doesn’t have as clear of a target, so instead it swings at everyone. Its worst parts are when it stops to show people on their phones. They tweet inanity, they participate in dumb viral challenges, they tune into propaganda and formulate conspiracy theory. At no point does Don’t Look Up’s script demonstrate an interest in why these people do these things, or what causes these online phenomena. Despite this being a central aspect of his story, McKay doesn’t seem to think it worthy of consideration. There’s a word for that: contempt.

Don’t Look Up is currently playing in theaters and will premiere on Netflix on Dec. 24.