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‘Don’t Look Up’: Broad humor undermines satire about a country in denial

Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio and an amazing cast throw their talents behind the movie’s dark but disappointingly obvious humor.

A pair of shallow TV hosts (Cate Blanchett, left, and Tyler Perry) miss the urgent points being made by astronomers Randall (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate (Jennifer Lawrence) in “Don’t Look Up.”
Netflix

In Mimi Leder’s greatly entertaining if outlandishly melodramatic 1998 sci-fi disaster film “Deep Impact,” the world learns an extinction-level comet is directly on course to crash-land on Earth and potentially cause the extinction of all life as we know it.

Here’s the thing with that film. When President Morgan Freeman — OK, Freeman’s character was President Tom Beck — calls a press conference to alert the nation and the world to this approaching comet, everyone pretty much believes him, and acts accordingly. There’s not a whole lot of opposition to the science and the facts.

We live in different times, as writer-director Adam McKay makes abundantly (and repetitively) clear in the dark, intermittently funny, well-acted but far too broad and obvious “Don’t Look Up.” The title stems from the premise that even when virtually all of the world’s top astronomers have concurred a rapidly approaching comet will almost certainly wipe out the planet, and even when one can simply look up and literally see the ginormous Blazing Ball of Impending Doom in the skies above, a considerable portion of the populace won’t believe it’s real, refuses to take it seriously and/or peddles wild conspiracy theories about how this is all part of some grand plan to control us.

The “Look Up” faction says all you have to do is, well, look up, and you’ll see the irrefutable truth. The deniers counter with what they believe is a simple, common-sense retort: Just don’t look up!

Sadly, given the events of the last many years — yes, some people would embrace a “Don’t Look Up” policy if we found ourselves squarely in the path of an Earth-shattering comet. But as much as I admired McKay’s boldly creative and wickedly insightful satirical work on “The Big Short” (2015) and “Vice” (2018), this has to be categorized as one of the more disappointing efforts of the year, given the premise and the amazing cast. McKay is aiming for a modern-day “Dr. Strangelove,” but he keeps shooting fish in a barrel long after they’ve stopped flopping about.

Oscar winners abound in “Don’t Look Up,” starting with Leonardo DiCaprio as Michigan State University astronomy professor Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as his grad student, one Kate Dibiasky, who makes an amazing discovery of a comet the size of Mount Everest orbiting within our solar system. For a moment, Dr. Mindy and his team are in full celebration mode — until the data reveals this “planet killer” of a comet is heading directly towards Earth. Whoops.

Meryl Streep plays the U.S. president who dismisses the planet’s imminent doom.
Netflix

Cut to the Oval Office, where the craven, publicity-minded, easily distracted President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) takes a quick meeting with Dr. Mindy, Kate and the high-ranking scientist Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), while President Orlean’s idiot son Jason, who is also her chief of staff, finds it impossible to contain his boredom and impatience as Dr. Mindy and Kate lay out the facts.

“So how certain is this?” says President Orlean.

“There is 100% certainty of impact,” comes the reply from Dr. Mindy, to which the president responds, “Don’t say 100% ... call it 70% and let’s move on.”

This is the first of many, many, many indications the fumbling but charming and passionate Dr. Mindy and the punk-rock, blunt and emotionally edgy Kate are going to have a surprisingly difficult time getting people to believe the truth. They make an appearance on an insanely chipper morning chat show called “The Daily Rip,” where the shallow, narcissistic hosts Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) and Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) are more interested in making jokes, turning Dr. Mindy into something of a sex symbol and moving on to the next segment than listening to the message. (After Kate goes on a rant about how they’re all going to die, Brie says the handsome astronomer is welcome back any time, but not so much with “the yelling lady.”)

Meanwhile, the world seems more interested in the latest romantic developments between the lovely and talented but breathtakingly dim pop star Riley Bina (Ariana Grande, and good for her for poking fun at herself) and her on-again, off-again partner DJ Chello (Scott Mescudi aka Kid Cudi) than in the impending end of the world. Then there’s a creepy, world-famous tech visionary (Mark Rylance, unfortunately hitting some tone-deaf notes in a distractingly strange performance), who has a grand plan for mining the comet for its trillions of dollars in valuable raw materials and THEN blowing it up, “Armageddon” style. It’s … not a good plan.

“Don’t Look Up” is wrapped in a package about a comet hurtling toward the planet but is obviously designed to be a warning about the environmental crises threatening our future, and there are some salient points and a few hearty laughs along the way. More too often, unfortunately, we’re spending time with one broad caricature after another, from the leads to relatively minor supporting players such as Ron Perlman’s gun-crazy Col. Ben Drask, who literally fires his weapons at the approaching comet, and Timothee Chalamet as an achingly sincere skateboarder who falls for Kate amidst all the chaos. From Streep and DiCaprio and Lawrence through the supporting players, “Don’t Look Up” is filled with greatly talented actors really and truly selling this material — but the volume remains at 11 throughout the story when some changes in tone here and there might have more effectively carried the day.