Film & TV

‘What Is the Worst Film of 2021?’

From left: Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Jennifer Lawrence in Don’t Look Up. (Niko Tavernise/Netflix)
In Don’t Look Up, Adam McKay wages civil war, Hollywood style.

Readers have asked why the Better-Than List did not include a Bad Luck Banging > Don’t Look Up entry. My answer comes from W. C. Fields: “Too blatant.”

Radu Jude’s funny, shocking essay on Covid-era lunacy and its political roots was third-rail satire that found little public and media response. That old theater maxim “Satire is what closes on Saturday” seems relevant but off the mark when mainstream culture is incapable of appreciating satire.

Don’t Look Up is Netflix’s evasive, misstated excuse for political satire that fails very badly because writer-director Adam McKay doesn’t grasp his own political prejudices. Unlike Jude, McKay has no real sense of humor, just sophomoric ridicule. He brazenly broadcasts the entitled sense of obnoxiousness encouraged in Hollywood or Broadway environs, where liberalism has turned into progressivism. And as essayist David Horowitz observed, “inside every progressive is a totalitarian screaming to get out.”

Romanian esthete Jude knows what totalitarianism looks like, but self-satisfied American McKay thinks totalitarianism looks like progress. That’s why Don’t Look Up’s score-settling jokes are off. The premise, in which a team of astrophysicists (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet headed for collision with Earth and try to warn the president of the United States (Meryl Streep), is so deeply earnest — yet facetious — that it’s humorless. DiCaprio and Lawrence fear that only six months and 14 days remain for mankind, echoing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s warning that we all have only 12 years left before humanity collapses. The warnings go unheeded, because we are not as smart as them.

McKay’s “climate crisis” is more narrow-minded than Jude’s survey of media-madness and lockdown hysteria. McKay pokes fun at the end of the world the same way that progressives employ threats instead of making humanist appeals to reason. The film’s negativity indicts McKay and insults his audience.

Don’t Look Up’s better-than-you comedy reveals the nastiness of liberals who cannot abide difference of opinion. Experts DiCaprio and Lawrence (a bloated egotist and a hipster egotist) sneer at “climate deniers,” creating their own coterie of bourgeois elite, spending the end-times at an elite dinner among new civil-war separatists. All who oppose them are fools, including an executive branch leader who is essentially of their own kind — depicted by Streep with lofty giddiness.

Given Streep’s strained buffoonery, we might realize how the media coddles Puppet President Joe for the express purpose of holding on to power. This pragmatic, disdainful maneuver, a stealthy coup against public consciousness, exceeds McKay’s capacity for insight. But note that it’s achieved only through media complicity — the temerity familiar from late-night talk shows and TV propaganda mills such as Saturday Night Live (McKay’s breeding ground). Although McKay avoids skewering his own profession, by now it’s apparent that establishment comedians have restructured comedy into thin-skinned self-righteousness (as with the cackling Disney villainesses on The View). They can’t resist forcing their predictable politics on the public.

In Bad Luck Banging, Jude presented a three-part argument that included documentary realism. But McKay’s doomsday fantasy offers know-it-all-ism under the guise of absurdity, then makes the error of using annihilation as an analogy for climate change. This is not just ridiculous, it lacks the sensitive character detail of broad satire like Dr. Strangelove.

That’s the reason McKay goes for a pompous, all-star spectacle. As in 2018’s Vice, his hateful, too-early tirade against the Dick Cheney clan, Don’t Look Up boasts a marquee roster. These liberal Hollywood fellow-travelers are the least appealing cast of any movie this century.

It’s a showcase of those who’ve already committed deceitful grandstanding (Streep, Lawrence, DiCaprio) or who are lower-level deceivers (Thimothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Jonah Hill, and Mark Rylance as a Fauci-Gates-Bezos composite like his cloying character in Ready Player One).

Every caricature, teetering between silliness and arrogance, lacks farcical dimension; it’s the shrillness of virtue-signaling celebrities telling us how to feel and what we should think. McKay relies on their fame and misapplies their skills — unlike the believably harried city folk in Bad Luck Banging and the panoply of all-American types in Tim Burton’s social, cultural, political extravaganza Mars Attacks. These are the Great Obliviots — overpaid performers so oblivious to state of the world actually happening around them that they exaggerate pandemonium beyond recognition.(The only obnoxious leftists missing are Robert DeNiro, George Clooney, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Ruffalo.)

But the fault is not only in these stars; they’re following McKay’s humiliating orders. His topical sarcasm about bureaucratic infighting (grifting military advisers, a lone black political operative) neither earns our cynicism nor justifies offending our sensibilities. McKay is, in fact, topically retarded. The White House–Beltway jokes are far behind The West Wing’s; the scientific-paranoia gags don’t improve on War Games or Minority Report; his fear of the future mimics Year One, Armageddon, and Deep Impact. His pretense of unsparing showbiz parody doesn’t match our gobsmacked sense of the ridiculous: Ariana Grande playing an opportunistic pop star singing at a political event in a feather gown doesn’t compare with her performance in a black tutu at Aretha Franklin’s funeral while ogled at by Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton.

Because we’ve already crossed the Rubicon, McKay’s browbeating us about it feels redundant and wimpy. He cowardly identifies the New York Times as “The New York Herald,” defanging any satire of media blowhards. Then he completely avoids the ramifications of Big Tech’s First Amendment clampdown — implicitly accepting the calamitous censorship of the president of the United States. Only climate-crisis folderol matters.

We are far ahead of McKay, because the worst has already happened — the end of liberty, honesty, election integrity, science, gender, and religion. An apocalyptic comedy by atheist liberals doesn’t even come close to being scary, or a plausible allegory.

McKay has fashioned himself a niche as Hollywood’s premier political reactionary. The Big Short was his overweening, unintelligible reaction to the 2008 recession. Vice was his Bush 43 revenge-kill, targeting a subordinate. Vice may have preempted a Trump satire by McKay, but the Derangement Syndrome is strong in this guy. Laudatory reviews for Don’t Look Up mean that McKay isn’t likely to stop clowning, even though Nancy Pelosi ripping up President Trump’s State of the Union address on TV, kneeling at the Capitol in a kente-cloth shawl, or later praising George Floyd’s “sacrifice” make more effective, dangerous, absurdist jokes than McKay.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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