Adam McKay is that rarest of Hollywood creatures: a successful satirist. After several Will Ferrell comedies, the writer-director made a real stretch , with “The Big Short” (2015). That adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the Great Recession was impressively sure-handed and even more impressively inventive. It also won McKay an adapted-screenplay Oscar. “Vice” (2018) was the biopic as ice pick, going after Dick Cheney with happily intemperate gusto. Highly uneven, the movie boasted a phenomenal performance by Christian Bale as Cheney.
Now there’s “Don’t Look Up.” Not even uneven, it’s as much of a drop off from “Vice” as “Vice” was from “The Big Short.” The movie is an allegory of global warming, with the stand-in for climate change being a Mount Everest-size comet soon to hit Earth. Flat-footed and far too broad, it’s a reminder why “Saturday Night Live” skits don’t run two hours and 18 minutes.
“Don’t Look Up” does have a phenomenal cast — Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Jonah Hill, Ariana Grande — but no phenomenal performances. Well, Blanchett and Rylance are very good, and Chalamet may have found his calling, playing a stoner, but their characters are cartoons.
With so many really good actors up on the screen — the movie opens in theaters Friday and starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 24 — you keep waiting for really good things to happen on that screen, and then hoping for just good things, and then just looking for . . . things. Nothing much does, other than astronomically, of course.
Lawrence plays Kate, a PhD candidate in astronomy, who discovers the comet in question. This is cause for celebration, until her adviser, Professor Mindy (a bearded DiCaprio), calculates the comet’s course and realizes that its trajectory will produce “a direct hit on Earth in six months and 14 days.” There’s at least one silver lining to such an outcome. A few days later, Kate’s boyfriend says his mother wants to meet her. “Can I ask to sit down with your mom in, like, seven months?” she replies.
The discovery gets Kate and Mindy a secret Oval Office meeting with President Janie Orlean. “Tell me about it, then tell me why you’re telling me about it,” she says. As played by Streep, Orlean is buffoonishly Trumpian: coarse, dumb, and obsessed with getting reelected. She’s also Trumpish in not being funny. Unlike him, she’s supposed to be. Orlean’s no less buffoonish son (Hill) is White House chief of staff. While the comet is obviously meant to make us think about global warming — a terrible threat that puts the entire planet at risk — the scenes with Streep can’t help but make a viewer think about what things must have been like in the White House during the early, and not-so-early, days of the pandemic.
Hoping to mobilize public opinion, Kate and Mindy go on “The Daily Rip,” a popular morning talk show. Perry and Blanchett play the hosts. Blanchett, unlike Streep, takes a raw-meat pleasure in the caricature that is her character and gets more laughs than she has any right to. The media generally take their lumps here. A headline on the cover of a magazine called Pro Sports World screams, “Will there be a Super Bowl?”
It’s not just politics and the media McKay targets. He goes after social media (talk about low-hanging fruit), with Grande playing a singer whose romantic woes explode the Internet. Big business and high tech take it on the chin, too. They come together in the person of tech mogul Sir Peter Isherwell (Rylance). He’s a bit of Peter Thiel, a bit of Steve Jobs, maybe some Elon Musk, and with Mister Rogers’s voice. The man’s all winsome ruthlessness, and, hey, what if the comet is more (profit) opportunity than threat?
Soon enough, America has divided into cap-wearing camps: Don’t Look Up battles with Just Look Up, and things feel all too uncomfortably familiar. In a society where so much of politics and public opinion has become a grotesque burlesque, it’s sort of hard to outdo reality, satire-wise. Give McKay points for trying — and, goodness knows, his heart’s in the right place. DiCaprio keeps uttering the words “peer-review process” with mantra-like reverence.
Some of the movie was filmed locally. South Station fills in for Union Station, in Washington, D.C., and the Financial District for midtown Manhattan. Yes, that familiar-looking news reporter is Gary Tanguay, formerly of NBC Sports Boston.
If you wait through the credits, there’s a very nicely set up joke involving Hill. Truly, he has no peer these days at playing smug jerks. He’s an updated, millennial Dabney Coleman. In an ideal world, “Don’t Look Up” would be an updated “Dr. Strangelove,” making deadly serious fun of a deadly serious menace. But as Adam McKay knows all too well, this is not an ideal world.
DON’T LOOK UP
Directed by Adam McKay; written by McKay and David Sirota. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Jonah Hill. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs; starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 24. 138 minutes. R (language, some sexual content, nudity, drug content)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.