January 2nd, 2021 at 3:43 am EDT
Al Gore, take notes: a Trojan horse, this is what An Inconvenient Truth should have been.
Open on the most gangster person, doing the most gangster thing, listening to the most gangster song. The person, an astronomer. The thing, working the lookout tower for the whole planet to mount an offensive against the bastard known as “extinction.” And the song, “Wu‐Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta Fuck Wit.”
In Don’t Look Up, Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) report to the country and world that an incoming comet is about to end life on Earth. Running point on the Paul Revere committee is fed Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) — but our heroes quickly lose momentum when they learn that absolutely no one is interested in hearing, let alone heeding the warning.
Director and screenwriter Adam McCay has in Don’t Look Up created the perfect, modern allegory for climate change, which very much is an extinction-level event pending major intervention, and is already a confirmed crater.
DiCaprio and Lawrence are the yin and yang of anxiety, respectively one who takes a quarter of Xanax at a time, and the other who smokes a bowl to calm down while riding in the back of a Lockheed military transport. Both actors play here outside of their typical cool types and aid in characterizing one another, and all of the supporting cast serves to characterize, well, us. Blanchett is particularly transformed, bellowing the deep cadence of a morning show co-host and according to McCay, indulging in plenty of improv alongside her co-host, a smitten Tyler Perry. Jonah Hill is nearly intolerable as the wise-cracking Jason Orlean, chief-of-staff and son to Meryl Streep’s cynical and aloof President Janie Orlean. McCay seems to have modeled Jason’s dialogue after Don Jr.’s Twitter feed.
During a scene in the Oval, McCay cuts to a close-up portrait of Thomas Jefferson the way the camera would cut to Jim for his reaction to a Michael Scott gaffe. The movie can be hard-to-watch, even as all the jokes land. Like The Office, Parks, or the average Will Ferrell sketch, the gap between reality and the characters’ delusions is titanic enough at times for you to bury your face in your hands — that’s how climatologists see us, projecting sitcom levels of situational irony.
There is perhaps no more nihilistic movie than Don’t Look Up, which after the opening sequence of confirming that everything we’re doing is now irrelevant, colors every habit of life from there as precisely that irrelevant. Ariana Grande’s work to fund “manatee sanctuaries,” typically empathic, is already useless mere minutes after the opening credits. DiCaprio offers in a public address what may be the most intuitively wise words ever spoken in American history, and Hill calls them “lit!” Classical music takes its turn under the guillotine as the mis-enchanting background vibe for a glorified Silicon Valley PowerPoint. Blanchett at one point poses the question, “Now, where are we going to dinner tonight?” with all the panache of a persisting socialite in a hurricane. Negligent or never-enough, it’s all the same suicide.
Absolutely nothing on-screen short of the hyper-sane DiCaprio, Lawrence, Morgan, and oddly enough a Twitch-streamer played by Timothée Chalamet comes off as relevant, important, vital, worthy, appropriate — pick your Earthly-life cosmology. A Mark Ryland character nearly undercuts DiCaprio’s propulsion, too. The result is galactic cringe.
If there’s enlightenment in this sea of nothingness, it’ll be of a Buddhist flare, jettisoning all distractions, understanding the futility of ego. McCay even makes sure that, like the Buddha, you too will guffaw, possibly while also rubbing your belly. Watching Don’t Look Up is an out-of-body experience that with the right trip setting and sitter could be as powerfully cathartic as a 49-day meditation.
This is purge-cinema, not of your dinner, but of your ability to give a shit about dinner. If its Netflix run were to cut off unceremoniously tomorrow, it’d still be one of the most effecting works of rhetorical fiction in history.
Rapid nirvana is dizzying. Travel lightly.
Ryan Derenberger is a freelance journalist and editor, a Journalism and AP Language teacher at Whitman HS in Bethesda, MD, and the founder of 'The Idea Sift.'