Peter Bart: Adam McKay And His A-List ‘Don’t Look Up’ Cast Challenge Audiences To At Least Crack A Smile About End Of The World

Are filmgoers ready for Don’t Look Up? It’s a star-laden satire dealing with hot topics of the moment – everything from the climate crisis to media disarray and the firings of news anchors.

Hit movies tend to owe their success to the luck of timing, not topicality – at least that’s the theory of studio insiders, those of us who once greenlit movies. The mood of the audience seemed primed for Titanic in 1998 or Platoon in 1986 or Dr. Strangelove in 1964 or even West Side Story in 1962 (oops, but not the one in 2021).

At a moment when high-profile movies are opening to drab numbers, this holiday season in particular would seem to need relevance. Adam McKay, who gave us The Big Short and Anchorman, thinks so. Hence he has delivered a gonzo satire whose opening this week seems designed to sync not only with tornados but also the shuffling of news stars like Chris Wallace, Brian Williams, Chris Cuomo and Rachel Maddow. (Now in theaters, Don’t Look Up debuts on Netflix on December 24.)

Is the news anchor an anachronism? Anachronism is an ominous word in Hollywood this week, given the flaccid opening of West Side Story. Filmgoers’ disinterest in Steven Spielberg’s $100 million musical prompted many (myself included) to wonder whether the “period musical” is simply yesterday’s news? If so, will Don’t Look Up prove to be today’s?

McKay is a famously daring optimist. “If a script calls for an actor to give you a match, McKay will substitute a blowtorch,” one star of a McKay movie confided to me. McKay loves satire — provided it’s apocalyptic. Hence his new movie is prompted by extinction-level events, not mere tornados.

“Great satire amplifies obvious truths, and Don’t Look Up contains these moments of recognition,” writes Ben Smith, the media columnist of the New York Times, who admires the Strangelovian movie. That’s despite the fact that his newspaper, renamed The Herald, gets zapped in the film because it downplays the “big story,” which isn’t driving traffic.

McKay’s strident messages, as well as his box office successes, continue to draw strong star support: Leonardo DiCaprio plays a nerdy, ulcer-prone astronomy professor. Jennifer Lawrence is his brilliant (albeit uncontrollable) aide. Meryl Streep is cast as a clumsy, opportunistic President of the United States, and Cate Blanchett as a licentious news anchor who administers “media training,” among other gifts, to DiCaprio. There was even a nude scene for Streep in the film, which DiCaprio helped veto.

As the film unfolds, neither the President, nor the media, stand willing to herald the imminent threat of a giant comet speeding toward Earth — the obvious metaphor for climate change.

Although DiCaprio contrives to win a spot on a Today-like show to deliver his doomsday scenario, the anchors, Blanchett and a goofy Tyler Perry, keep demanding the ”fun” elements of his finding. Lawrence violates her media training by shouting “Maybe the destruction of Earth isn’t supposed to be f*cking fun.” The somber NASA chief interrupts a policy meeting to report that a pop star, played by Ariana Grande, has reunited with her boyfriend (Grande even gets to sing).

If the key personalities of the media are ducking devastation, McKay tells us, their ultimate setbacks are well deserved. The filmmaker had previously parodied local news practitioners in Anchorman, then turned to financial hustlers in The Big Short and war mongering operatives in Vice, which focused on Dick Cheney.

McKay surely must understand that satirists, like news anchors or hustlers, are also an evanescent species. He clearly enjoys the peril.

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