Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 30, 2021 4:34 pm 
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McKay misses his target

This time there are mostly pans for McKay, whose last finger-wagging satire (not counting his 2018 movie Vice about Dick Cheney), The Big Short, about exploiters of the financial meltdown of 2008, got a lot of raves and a Metascore of 81%. That one had a lot of specifics about financial malfeasance and stupidity, which scored well with some while sailing over the heads of others. The main trouble with this one is its focus on an artificial subject in lieu of the real intended one. Don't Look Up is a story about US leaders and mainstream media ignoring news of a large meteor that will hit and destroy planet Earth in six months. The real target, deemed too fluid no doubt, is the world's failure to mobilize about the long, slow destruction of the planet caused by climate change. McKay couldn't find a way to make the latter, more complicated topic funny, so he chose the meteor. But these are different events. One is happening, the other highly unlikely. One is a sudden blow, the other a slow death by a thousand cuts. McKay's invented meteor may hit its mark, but his satirical film misses the one he really has in mind.

McKay has a lot of energy for these things. He also can attract a host of big names, here including Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Rob Morgan, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, and Timothée Chalamet in good, or at least arresting, performances. Rylance is irritating as a blindly optimistic Elon Musk pseudo-visionary and Chalamet is original as a hipster with an evangelical background.

There are some scenes that fit both topics and have considerable force here, concerning the trivialization of public life. Let's note in passing that as often happens with American "issue" films, all the other nations of the world, even including the most favored Europe, are ignored, and the whole focus is on America, so the film itself exemplifies the kind of parochial blindness it rues. But what does connect is the depiction - crude, to be sure, but what could have been cruder than the actual last US President? - of a cigarette-smoking female leader broadly depicted by Meryl Streep who is more interested in her poll numbers and getting a scandal-ridden nominee through than the fate of the planet, which, anyway, she is probably incapable of understanding.

Like everything it's dragged out too long, but McKay is canny in his depiction of how Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, deep into his role) and his feisty grad student who has made the meteor discovery, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), fail when, after being ignored at the White House, they try to present their dire news on mainstream television. Both actors, but especially DiCaprio, are sympathetic and nuanced throughout. They are humans, but the national news media personalities they encounter and try to convince are one-dimensional ciphers no longer interested in fact but only in infotainment, jokes, gossip, memes, whatever makes the audience tune in and the ratings go up. McKay also hits another troubling topic: the way denial of facts has become politicized. Hence anti-vaxxers and, in this movie, a new crowd of meteor-deniers whose slogan is "Don't Look Up."

There is a lot of truth in these dire depictions. But the points are made early on, and the film continues, repeating itself. DiCaprio's excellent, committed performance as a virtuous and well-meaning intellectual everyman never stops being appealing and it carries us along. But after a while he is all we're watching.

Adam McKay ignores that famous admonition of Polonius, "Brevity is the soul of wit." You can only be memorably funny when you hit your mark and get out of the way. "Wit" means not just jokes and gibes but cleverness, intelligent satire. Good barbs strike fast and hit their mark. McKay's over-and-overing of similar jokes about the same subject is boorish and tedious and fatigues one. Study the work of Armando Iannucci OBE - the series "In the Thick of It," the films In the Loop and The Death of Stalin. The Brits understand the power of brevity. Their native modesty and sense of what makes good conversation allow them to dance circles around long-winded and yes, unfunny Americans. Ianucci would have focused on the idiotic politicians and the vapid media personalities and kept the meteor in the background, I'm guessing.

Don't Look Up, 138 mins., was released in a great many countries on the internet, in the US Dec. 10, 2021. On Netflix. Metacritic rating: 50%.

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