Don’t Look Up
Tempo grade: A
Rated R for language throughout, some sexual content, graphic nudity and drug content.
“When I die, I want to go peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather. Not screaming in terror, like the passengers in his car.“ — Jack Handey
That hilarious quote appears as a title card in the black as pitch comedy “Don’t Look Up,” now playing on Netflix. The film, directed by Adam McKay, features a good sized A-list cast including Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Ariana Grande, Ron Perlman, Timotheé Chalamet and Jonah Hill as characters having to deal with the impending destruction of all life on earth because of a huge comet from space. Pretty funny, eh?
Well, maybe not, but McKay mines most of his laughs by using this story as a satire of present day politics, social dynamics, celebrity, and the depravity of modern techno-wealth; and it is here he slices and dices to his heart’s content.
While he’s at it, McKay also takes a swipe at the complacency government officials and the public seem to possess over the impending danger from climate change. You would think that hellacious storms, rampant wildfires and the dissipation of the polar icecaps might offer a clue that something is happening to the planet that we, as humans, might be able to do something about. But, no. We were more upset this past year by Facebook going down for a day.
In the film, an astronomy grad student named Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence) discovers a comet on a direct trajectory to earth. Upon confirmation by her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (DiCaprio), they determine humanity has about seven months before all life will be wiped out by this planet killer. Doing their due diligence as others in similar movies like “Deep Impact” have done, they immediately contact national officials to not only warn them of impending doom but to get the ball rolling in case someone can come up with a plan to divert its path or destroy it altogether like in “Armageddon.”
What they encounter is a reaction from the White House that incisively parodies how the nation’s previous administration first dealt with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which was to downplay its significance and try to save face while the disease spread like wildfire, eventually killing hundreds of thousands of citizens. In this case, it’s President Orlean (Streep) who, with her sycophantic son and Chief of Staff Jason (Hill), try to tone down the rhetoric by saying the threat is not 100 percent, but more like 70 and that they need to have “their people” look at the data first before going public. This, of course, is double-talk for getting marginal experts to put a positive spin on the info.
Needless to say, what they want to do is basically nothing, and shoving it under rug is where their doomsday declaration gets kicked. This, of course, sparks the volatile Kate to convince pathologically shy Randall to go public on their own. So, they arrange a newspaper and a TV talk show to pick up this scoop. That’s when they come up against the horrifying specter of audience demographics and poll numbers that say the public is just not interested. Even worse, now the FBI wants to nail them for revealing classified information to the media.
Faster than you can say “Greenland,” the news of a real apocalypse goes nowhere. And just when it seems this dire prediction will only be taken seriously when fire begins raining from the sky, a horrific scandal breaks involving the president which kicks the logjam loose merely as a distraction so she’ll look like a big hero.
The movie skewers superficial obsessions, like celebrities given more airtime for their romantic escapades over real news content, the divisiveness of political affiliations and especially the sway impossibly rich entrepreneurs have over political figures. Mark Rylance does a brutally brilliant take as a mashup of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.
Highly recommended, but ultimately distressing, “Don’t Look Up” may hit the wrong buttons with some people, but with the world going to hell in a hand basket as the movie suggests, who’s gonna care when the excrement hits the spinning blades?
This film is streaming on Netflix, the online subscription service.
Here’s what’s showing at the TCA
Tempo grade: A
Rated R for strong/bloody violence, some sexual content, nudity, language and smoking.
There’s a chunk of dialogue near the beginning of Guillermo Del Toro’s remarkable period drama “Nightmare Alley” that goes, “Step right up and behold one of the unexplained mysteries of the universe! Is he a man or beast? This creature has been examined by the foremost scientists and pronounced, unequivocally, a man. I am prepared to offer you folks one last chance to witness this supreme oddity. Where did it come from? Begotten by the same and threat that got us all walking on this earth, but gone wrong somehow in maternal womb. Not fit for living. Is it a beast, or is it a man? You're in luck, because tonight, you will see him feed! Come on in and find out. Is he a man... or beast?”
Del Toro has been known to make good on that promise, explicitly revealing the monsters among us (“Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth”) who sometimes have been known to display more humanity than those of us on two legs and with a brain to think and plan and fall in love (“The Shape of Water”). But, in this film he chooses more of a metaphorical oddity, one whose monstrosity lies hidden beneath earnestness, charm, cleverness and, especially, guile. But, he would have to because when we first see Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) he’s engaged in doing something very obviously bad. We have to wonder, though, if the mystery his actions present are for a reason? Is he somehow justified?
We’re asked to set that aside for a while, because now Stanton is on the run. The era is right before the outbreak of World War II, a time when Americans were still digging themselves out of the Great Depression while overseas the disease of fascism was festering in its bowels. Many were out of work, but the hobo jungles were a good place to hide, and it is while laying low that Stanton finds himself in the employ of an itinerant carnival.
It’s a good place for him to be. He’s sharp, a quick study, and before long manager Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe), offers him a job. At first, he’s just a two-bit carny, but he works himself into a position as a mentalist with the help of friends Pete (David Strathairn) and Zeena the Seer (Toni Collette). He also develops a thing for sideshow performer Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara), but he has to move carefully because she has a protector in Bruno (Ron Perlman), the strongman.
Stanton, as we said, is clever.
As time goes on, he comes into the possession of a coveted notebook detailing all the secrets of a successful mentalist, a performer who, like Stanton, has to be a quick study, can read a rube in an instant and size up ways to learn things about them they will almost always be astonished to have revealed by a total stranger. He knows he can hit it big and so he convinces Molly to leave the carnival with him and strike out on their own. Within two years, they are headlining supper club shows and raking in big money. But, now, Stanton — much to the dismay of sweet Molly — is lured by the possibility of a really big score.
Del Toro, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kim Morgan, adapted a novel by William Lindsay Graham, has become a master of creating worlds of wonder, fantasies consisting of layer upon layer of details in set design, costumes and cinematic atmosphere. And, when applied to a period piece, one feels transported back in time. But, all of this works tremendously in service to this story in particular, where the allegory seems blatant but really isn’t. We know these symbols, the color scheme assigned to certain characters and ways the lighting is used to punctuate bits of dialogue. But, Del Toro is using a much more subtle palette to paint these characters.
Some have already faulted this movie for being “too slow.” But, as a writer and director, Del Toro knows exactly what he’s doing. All you have to do is pay attention. Like any good card trick, it’s all in the sleight-of-hand.
This film be screening Wednesday (Jan. 5, 7 pm., Sunday (Jan. 9), 2 p.m., and Tuesday (Jan. 11), 7 p.m. in the Movies on the Big Screen series at the Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. For more information and COVID restrictions, call (575) 758-2052 or visit tcataos.org.
It is also showing daily at the Mitchell Storyteller Cinemas, 110 Old Talpa Cañon Road. For more information and COVID restrictions, call (575) 751-4245 or visit storyteller7.com.