Director(s): Adam McKay
Writer(s): Adam McKay
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Jonah Hill, Ron Perlman, Cate Blanchett, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Tyler Perry, and more
When you really break it down, Adam McKay might be one of the more interesting directors of this generation. A director that got his start with Will Ferell doing pure comedy, until an eventual riff with the actor pushed McKay into more dramatic work; even if his subsequent projects have been anything but serious.
McKay’s style of comedy that worked with Ferrell so well has lent itself well to his drama, creating fully realistic and hilarious films, drawing the viewer in, ultimately to knock them out in an emotional and captivating way. With his newest feature Don’t Look Up, McKay may be at his most McKay-est of his career, and I say this in the best of ways. Adam McKay geniously blends the humor from his comedies like Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys with the relevance and drama from products like The Big Short, Vice, and his work on HBO’s Succession.
In Don’t Look Up, PHD Candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) notices a comet has entered our Solar System. Her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), runs a few tests and figures out the path of the comet (around 6-9 kilometers wide) is headed straight for Earth. From here, the two do what they can to notify the President (Meryl Streep), and “reporters” Brie Evantee and Jack Bremmer (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry respectively) of the incoming doom.
As you may have picked up in the previous paragraph, the cast for this film is massive. Not only are all of those people involved, but throw in: Timothee Chalamet, Ariana Grande, Jonah Hill, Kid Cudi, Ron Perlman, and so much more. This film didn’t just have a major cast, they all came to play giving some phenomenal performances – something we should expect from McKay driven projects – as every actor had their time to shine during the film. DiCaprio gave a rousing performance as an anxious astronomer who quite possibly is the smartest man in the room, but he would never tell you that. That is until you wind him up so much he absolutely explodes. Jennifer Lawrence is another standout as a PHD Candidate who is just baffled at the idea that no one is taking this extinction level event seriously. While DiCaprio remains restrained, Lawrence is bombastic, and fully owns the first half of the film. The issue with Lawrence is that come the second half, her character completely flips, losing the fire that made her so good in the first half.
However, for me, Mark Rylance steals the show. Rylance plays Peter Isherwell, a tech billionaire (Founder of the BASH company) who’s idea for a better future comes from expanding the technological landscape, and through the form of more money in his pocket. Putting on one of the strangest voices in film history, coupled with a never fading smile, Rylance doesn’t just live in every scene, he elevates it. Isherwell may not be the smartest man in the room, but he acts it, and because of that he can make anyone he wants feel less powerful. Rylance plays the most “against type” of anyone in the film, and brings out a performance I would have never expected to see. For how odd his character is, it is likely the best work of his career.
Another standout is Nicholas Britell’s unbelievable score. Playing out almost like a greatest hits album, this has hints of his uptempo work on Succession mixed with his more somber pieces from films like Moonlight or If Beale Street Could Talk. The film, and the chaotic way it’s edited (in a great way), allow the score to be a standout because the emotion begins to fill the air and then abruptly leaves, keeping you wanting more.
One thing that McKay does so spectacularly here is his writing, which shouldn’t be a surprise. McKay is an Oscar winner for Screenplay (The Big Short), and in this film he takes shots at the Government and their way of handling crisis situations in a manner that is both hilarious and horrifying. It’s as funny as any of his films, filled with one liners and running gags that could rival any comedy released this year, but it’s also filled with a massive amount of relevancy as he uses the comet as a stand in for a myriad of different issues facing the country and the world today. How these situations are handled, and the outcome of them both lend themselves to a fully emotional and terrifying point. You are laughing because what happens seems so absurd, but when you really begin to think about it, this is what’s happening.
The film’s ending is one that packs the most emotional punch of McKay’s career. A beautiful testament to family and life itself. This is where I think McKay has not only grown as a filmmaker, but I also think this is what makes him so unique. He doesn’t pull punches, and instead doubles down on them in an effort to really drive home his message. For some, this may not land, but for me it hit as hard as anything has all year.
Don’t Look Up might not land for everyone, but for me it hit like an extinction level asteroid. Adam McKay’s slick direction and script helps craft one of the funniest, and scariest, films of the entire year. Mark Rylance stands out in a loaded cast of heavy hitters and incredible cameos. The film is going to turn some people away, that’s a given with McKay’s work, but his ability to never pull punches allows him to land one of the most emotional final blows of the entire year.
2021 Film Rankings
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.