'Don't Look Up' is an environmental satire that squanders its resources
STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
In the new environmental satire "Don't Look Up," two American scientists make a grim discovery - a massive comet is hurtling toward Earth and threatening an extinction-level event. The only problem - they can't get the media or the president to pay attention. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence star as the scientists, and Meryl Streep plays the president. I'm Stephen Thompson, and today we are talking about "Don't Look Up" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining me is NPR political correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben. Welcome back, Danielle.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hey, there.
THOMPSON: It is great to have you.
So this is awards season, and "Don't Look Up" has a crazy Academy Awards pedigree. Writer-director Adam McKay won an Oscar for "The Big Short" and was nominated for "Vice." In addition to Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep - all of them Oscar-winners - the president's idiot son in this movie, who is also her chief of staff, is played by two-time nominee Jonah Hill. They're beholden to an eccentric tech billionaire played by Oscar-winner Mark Rylance. Along the way, Lawrence and DiCaprio try to get the attention of the media, represented in "Don't Look Up" by a pair of TV morning show hosts. They are played by two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, who got the Oscars Humanitarian Award earlier this year. Oscars on Oscars on Oscars. Blanchett and Perry are more interested in gossiping about the relationship between a pop star played by Ariana Grande and a rapper played by Kid Cudi.
As you might have guessed, "Don't Look Up" is a satire about Americans' distracted and indifferent response to climate change. It's inspired by conversations between Adam McKay and the journalist David Sirota, who gets a story credit here. "Don't Look Up" is on Netflix now. Danielle (sighing).
THOMPSON: What did you think of "Don't Look Up"?
KURTZLEBEN: I don't know if I have the right filter on my mic for a five-minute-long sigh, which is pretty much my response to this. There are a lot of problems with this film.
Now, the impulse at the center of it is to be about climate change, right? The whole thing that David Sirota and Adam McKay have said - you know, the comet is a metaphor for climate change. It is a thing that is coming that we cannot get people to care about. And in criticizing this movie, it is not that I'm criticizing the impulse to make a cathartic scream-cry of a movie about climate change because plenty of people feel that way, and I can't blame them. (Laughter) I mean, but this film is trying to take aim at so many people and so many things. It is trying to do so much and yet so little at the same time.
It's like it's trying to satirize an entire country. And when you're trying to jab at everyone, you will land satisfying hits on absolutely no one. And what ends up happening - all the jokes come off as lazy. Like the messages that come out of this film are, did you know the media's not paying enough attention to climate change and pays too much attention to celebrity news? Did you know that social media makes us all more shallow? Did you know that President Trump gets a sort of thinly veiled treatment by Meryl Streep in this movie? None of that is new. And so you come away from this movie being like, I don't know why I just sat through that.
THOMPSON: Well, interestingly, I'm not sure I necessarily agree with one of your main points here, which is the idea that this film is satirizing everything and going at too many targets. To me, it is what I would call duck-billed satire, which is - it is blunt but toothless.
KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) Yeah.
THOMPSON: And so it's going at a few things, but I'm not even sure it's necessarily picking, A, the right metaphor or, B, the right targets. I'm not sure that - if I were to list the 50 leading causes of the climate change crisis as it pertains to Americans, I'm not sure I would put Americans are too obsessed with pop stars as one of the 50 leading causes, right?
KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) Yeah.
THOMPSON: It's just an easy target.
THOMPSON: Isn't this incredibly shallow and stupid? And people only care about shallow and stupid things instead of what really matters. Well, that is a really smug point.
THOMPSON: That isn't actually ripping a strip out of anything with any real power.
THOMPSON: And so I kept finding myself thinking, in a strange way, it's actually steering clear of a lot of the forces that are actually responsible for climate change. Its view of politics is very much like, this president is the only figure who can stop this...
THOMPSON: ...Instead of laying out any larger issues with the fact that what we actually have are kind of two teams, each of which is ineffectual in its own way. And that is more complicated and more potent, and this movie avoids it completely.
Instead of presenting a media landscape that is the media takes completely the wrong angle on it. It's the media only cares about pop stars. Well, yeah, if you're - if the media consists of this one dumb show - it's, like, summing up the entire media as if it were "Regis And Kelly." It's not actually an accurate portrayal of the media. Setting up a comet as a metaphor for climate change misses the point of what the problem is, which is that this is an incredibly complicated issue. If this were a singular, violent, imminent threat, the media knows how to cover that.
KURTZLEBEN: Well, and not only that, but a singular, violent, imminent threat that one country acting alone can stop.
KURTZLEBEN: Two things - one, we just had a massive climate summit in Glasgow. Like, this is a collective action problem. That's what climate change is. And furthermore, it is a diffuse threat.
KURTZLEBEN: It's a threat to everyone, and it is a slow-moving threat. The news lately illustrates to us exactly the political problems with fighting climate change. When what it means is bigger and scarier tornadoes every year that people don't necessarily directly connect to climate change, how do you make an effective political argument about that?
What they are doing here is making it all about, look at this idiot president and this idiot president's son, essentially. Those are the only political figures we really see here. And, yes, you can lay more of the blame at a president's feet, but we have a whole political system that has, for much longer than the last few years, failed to act sufficiently on climate change. I think that's fair to say.
So this gets at what I was sort of saying about taking aim at too many things. You can imagine a world in which they stick to the politics of it and leave aside all the media and other stuff. If you had this president interacting with members of Congress in a constant, increasingly idiotic stalemate, that could be a biting satire. I would be willing to sit through that more than this. That is not what this movie is.
THOMPSON: I mean, this is a movie that is throwing so many things at you. There are bound to be a few things that work. There are a few running gags in this film that are really effectively deployed where you're clearly like - you are in skilled hands. It's part of what is frustrating about this film. I think there's an interesting plot point that comes up where the Leonardo DiCaprio scientist becomes kind of a celebrity...
THOMPSON: ...Sex symbol scientist that is, like - gosh, you are just, like, right on the verge of kind of getting to some interesting ideas about this and fleshing out some nuances in how this would affect these people. But then it just keeps wandering off of those points.
KURTZLEBEN: Yes, that Leonardo DiCaprio arc - it verges on saying something smart about being steered away from your purpose by being a thot (ph) leader - (laughter) you know? - which is a valid thing. And there's also - you can't build a movie around this, but there's a running gag where a military general brings Jennifer Lawrence and Leo to the White House and offers them snacks and then tells them, yeah, these are really expensive. It's $10 a pop.
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JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Kate Dibiasky) Where do I pay for these?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It's free.
LAWRENCE: (As Kate Dibiasky) Really?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes, it's the White House.
LAWRENCE: (As Kate Dibiasky) The snacks are free.
ROB MORGAN: (As Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe) What?
LAWRENCE: (As Kate Dibiasky) The general - he charged us for the snacks, but they're free.
KURTZLEBEN: And Jennifer Lawrence fixates on this for the rest of the film. And...
THOMPSON: Was it just about power? Was it about...
KURTZLEBEN: It's human. It's funny. It's - it - oh. Like, there's stuff here that could work, but doesn't.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, there's that little performance by Timothee Chalamet as, like, a Christian skateboarder. That's pretty funny. It's an enormous assemblage of talent, right? You even have, like, a Nicholas Britell score.
KURTZLEBEN: Yes (laughter).
THOMPSON: You know, they got Bon Iver to write a song. I mean, on paper, this thing should be fantastic, right?
KURTZLEBEN: Yes. Yeah, I mean, the thing is there are so many good actors, and they just don't have anything to work with. And Cate Blanchett is playing, you know, this journalist who is a thinly veiled version of Mika Brzezinski, except a bit more obsessed with celebrity culture. And she has sex with one of her subjects. First of all...
THOMPSON: For the love of God, we've talked about this so many times (laughter).
KURTZLEBEN: Just, fellas - and I do mean fellas.
KURTZLEBEN: I don't need to say any more about that. But aside from that, what I'm saying is it's hard to appreciate someone's performance when they are given that to work with. Like, Tyler Perry - he stole "Gone Girl" by being on the screen for 15 minutes. He's on the screen for about that long here and is given negative nothing to do. Like, Jonah Hill can play a creep. He was in "Wolf Of Wall Street." Like, he was fantastic in that. But his creep of a president's son here is funny at times, but there's no movement. It's just - everybody is one-note, and it is one-note at fortissimo the whole time.
THOMPSON: I did want to talk about the way this movie fits into Adam McKay's filmography...
THOMPSON: ...Because Adam McKay has kind of talked about the fact that this is part of his trilogy of political movies. It follows in the aftermath of "The Big Short" and "Vice," which was about Dick Cheney. But it's also part of a larger career that includes a lot of comedies, like "Step Brothers" and "Talladega Nights" and "Anchorman." Where does this fit in for you within the trilogy of political movies and within his larger career?
KURTZLEBEN: I mean, first of all, the bottom. No question.
KURTZLEBEN: I - I'm sorry to be so simple here, but that's true. Let's start with just the political movies. "The Big Short" - I don't know about you. I love that movie. "The Big Short" was kind of a big swing, I thought. It is trying to explain credit default swaps, financial derivatives and make it entertaining. And it breaks the fourth wall and it does it with some nuance. Like, the stripper that's bought five houses, the feckless real estate salesman - you don't sit there and think, God, what a bunch of idiots. You think, oh, this system sucked everyone in. And that movie works, perhaps because you're working from an excellent book by Michael Lewis, of course. It has great source material. But "Vice" and this movie fall into the same trap of instead of explaining something to you, it's just telling you, look how dumb this thing is.
But it's interesting to bring up "Anchorman," for example, compared to this because "Anchorman" is a pretty shaggy movie, right? Like, "Anchorman," yes...
THOMPSON: Yes, to put it lightly (laughter).
KURTZLEBEN: ...It's kind of satirizing local news, but also it digresses to talk about Sex Panther cologne for a while. And it's so funny and weird. This movie is shaggy as well, but not in a way that works. Like, it needs some tightening. If you're going to do a pointed satire, well, you got to point it, you know? And I feel like it's just too long to really do that successfully, you know?
THOMPSON: I agree with you completely about where it fits in his filmography. I did not like "Vice." "Vice" just landed really, really flat for me.
THOMPSON: To me, in some ways, this is like the anti-"Big Short." "Big Short" took an incredibly complicated issue and kind of found interesting ways to explain what made it complicated.
THOMPSON: And this is taking a really complicated issue and just kind of sculpting it down to a sledgehammer and just, like, losing everything that's interesting and nuanced about it. And I think this movie really just loses track of its own metaphor in some ways.
KURTZLEBEN: Oh, yeah.
THOMPSON: I just found it really frustrating because it is just, to me, a massive waste of resources.
KURTZLEBEN: I mean, to get at one more thing and to get something - at more specifics about this movie, there's one thing that keeps sticking in my head. It is one little scene, and I mean little. It's - Jennifer Lawrence goes back home to Michigan and goes to her parents' house, and her parents have locked her out of the house. And she asks why. And I'm paraphrasing, but their line is roughly, we're for the jobs that the comet's going to provide.
And that sums up the smugness of this movie in - just in one line. Because you can go ahead and make that criticism that trying to capitalize on disaster is a bad thing - go ahead. And this movie tries to make that point. But it does not engage. It doesn't go deeper. It just points at these two randos (ph) in the Midwest and says, ha, ha, couple of dumbasses and moves on its merry way. And even if you think you're right, you're not making a savvy or intelligent and definitely not mind-changing point for anyone here.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, I mean, you kind of led me into the last question, which sounds rhetorical, but I'm going to make it not. Can you imagine anywhere on Earth a single mind being changed by this movie?
KURTZLEBEN: No, but I don't know if that's the right question, right? Because, like, a film that is trying to change your mind is going to be a film that fails. But, like, I did, in preparation for our conversation today, watch "Dr. Strangelove." And, like, "Dr. Strangelove" seems to be intent on exploring, not changing your mind. This movie - you just come away feeling like your intelligence has been insulted. It doesn't tell you anything new because it doesn't explore anything. It's just a political burn book in movie form. Just, like, here's all the people I'm mad at, and here's all the people I'm frustrated with. Let's slap it together into a movie. And, like, oh, that does nothing, I'm sorry (laughter).
THOMPSON: Yeah. I - well, I'm with you, buddy.
THOMPSON: Well, we want to know what you think about "Don't Look Up." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much, Danielle, for being here.
KURTZLEBEN: No problem.
THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all tomorrow when we'll be talking about our pop culture predictions for 2022.
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