By: Sean McLane
On 25 December of 2021, Adam McKay’s new film, Don’t Look Up, was released on Netflix. The SNL alum’s long awaited(1) and much hyped satirical critique of contemporary America, in it’s overwhelming vapidity and consumerist driven self absorption, is a thinly veiled allegory to the potentially cataclysmic societal fallout that could come to head if the issues of climate change are not addressed. The cast is a who’s who of the current mainstream Hollywood pantheon, helmed by Leonardo Dicaprio(2) and Jennifer Lawrence, with support from Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Cate Blancett, Timothee Chalamet(3), and Tyler Perry, among others. As I awoke Christmas morning, I was almost more excited to watch than open gifts.
Upon my viewing, I was immediately hooked. I found McKay’s writing and scathing commentary to be incredibly topical and accurate. He parodies the machinations of so many institutions (media, politics, entertainment, business), with such accuracy and wit that it made me laugh aloud, followed immediately by a very real sense of impending doom that quickly stifled that amusement. I was absolutely blown away, and I foresaw critical lauding and awards season gilding in it’s future. But upon reading reviews from contemporary magazines and websites, as well as Letterboxd(4) users absolutely abhorring the work, I was stunned. How could so many people(5) so strongly dislike something I saw as one of the best films of the year? These critics saw it as boring, self-absorbed, too obvious. I quickly amassed some theories and opinions to back up my love of it and began a rudimentary review on my own Letterboxd profile. One of which, and really my most poignant, I will discuss below.
Before doing so, I need to make aware (for those who might be unaware) of a literary genre known as the Encyclopedic Novel. Think Moby Dick, Don Quixote, Gravity’s Rainbow(6). The E.N. is, according to Wikipedia, a novel that “attempt[s] to render the full range of knowledge and beliefs of a national culture, while identifying the ideological perspectives from which that culture shapes and interprets its knowledge.” That’s a bit long and jargony, so you can think of it as a long, big book that tries to take everything a culture knows about a particular subject and put it to paper, with the goal of preservation, as they are usually written in the face of impending annihilation to the subject they are attempting to preserve(7), hence the preservatory aspect.
In my view, this is exactly what this film was doing. It was taking contemporary culture and all of its problems and creating a sort of tableau that at once lays these things out flat, and at the same time makes fun of them and narrativizes them in a somewhat enjoyable(8) way. More evidence for this theory is in it’s thinly veiled allegory for climate change, acting as the annihilation event that characterizes the E.N. I typed this up in cruder terms and went on with my Christmas plans. I didn’t think about the critiques again until later that night, when the repeated criticism that the work lacked any sort of answer or solution to the issues it put to screen and therefore acted as a sort of large, claustrophobic-celebrity-driven middle finger to the world, i.e. it lacked substance.
This criticism has stuck with me in the days since I watched the film, despite my sisyphean attempts to refute them. And as I am writing this article, I admit defeat. I believe now that I was somewhat blinded by my excitement and anticipation of the film and failed to see the issues that were being raised were substantive. I will not, however, say that I didn’t like this film, I did. It was very funny, and well made, and the performances from the cast were all stellar(9). My main problem with the work has to do with the aforementioned substance(10)of the film. I do not believe it is a powerful or even important piece of art, and, like many of the negativereviews I’ve mentioned, see it more as a large middle finger to the world, i.e. the world sucks, and that sucks, and you suck, and we all suck, and there’s nothing to do about all this suckiness, this is just the way it is (oh, and by the way, you suck).
Remember in one of the prior footnotes I talked about how Gravity’s Rainbow is sort of a deviation of the traditional encyclopedic novel in a postmodernist sense and that it wouldn’t really matter to this particular essay? Sorry, but I lied. Unlike the E.N.s before it, Gravity’s Rainbow does not actually attempt to collect all the knowledge of a society on a subject, but instead just dumps large quantities of information into the text in a postmodernist attempt to convey that we can never actually know all of the information about a subject, and any attempt to do so is futile and arbitrary. While Gravity’s Rainbow is critiquing the literature that has attempted to do so before in a fresh and innovative style, it was published almost 50 years ago, and many have taken this concept and exhausted it, and it is no longer new or innovative, it’s just stale and derivative.
Unfortunately, I fear this is exactly what Don’t Look Up is doing. It fails as a serious piece of art, and falls into derivation, and here I will use a quote from another postmodern(11) author to back this idea up. David Foster Wallace said, in an interview with the Review of Contemporary Fiction, that “in dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” Don’t Look Up fails to do this on any level whatsoever. It has no silver lining. It has no hope. It’s desolate and bleak and is essentially, once again, a towering Middle Finger to the world.
With that said, this is not a bad film. It just seems to be a regression on McKay’s part into his earlier juvenile(12) work that seemed to be in his rearview mirror after making The Big Short and Vice, two films that deal with real life issues, the housing market crisis and the vice-presidency(13) of Dick Cheney respectively, and were incredibly well received and seem to me to be much more substantive. Nevertheless, I would definitely recommend this movie. It’s pretty fun(14) and well made, the cast is great, it’s topical, and Meryl Streep has a tramp stamp.(15) If that alone isn’t enough to make you want to watch, I don’t know what else is.
(1) At least for the author of this piece
(2)One can’t help but wonder if Leo’s participation here is due to his admiration for McKay or his firm beliefs and advocacy for climate health and natural preservation.
(3)What is this kid not in nowadays? Not that I’m against it. I can’t help but feel at once an odd sort of attraction to his angsty, devil-may-care charm and good looks, as well as a paradoxical envy of those exact qualities that attract me, a feeling I imagine most young men between the ages of 18-28 share to some degree.
(4) Letterboxd is a sort of movie lover social media, in which users can log and review films and see what their friends are watching. It’s really a great app, though I may be biased as a long time user and my compulsive need to organize the media I consume.
(5)It wasn’t all negative in fact, many reviewers also enjoyed it for many of the same reasons I did, as well as some more well thought out and informed praisings.
(6)Gravity’s Rainbow deviates pretty far from the traditional goals of the E.N. in a postmodernist sort of way that it’s author, Thomas Pynchon, somewhat pioneered. But that’s an essay of its own, and an essay that is most likely very boring and has been written over and over by exhausted English graduate students in final theses, so for the sake of this article, just think of it as an E.N.
(7)I fear this is getting way too theoretical and niche, so I will provide an example. Most have heard that Moby Dick contains literally hundreds of pages about the whaling industry that don’t pertain to the plot of the book, and the goal of this w/r/t the E.N. is to preserve an industry that contributed heavily to the growth of America as a Global Superpower but was quickly being effaced with the rise of industrialism.
(8)The film is about the impending end of the world, so enjoyment may not be exactly the right word. Think enjoyment in the same sense that the last and consequently fatal dose of heroin one takes before overdosing to death is enjoyable.
(9)How can they not be, I mean, you read who was in it. They’re all incredible actors, many of whom are highly awarded.
(10)Substance is italicized to convey the philosophical nature of my usage, rather than the scientific or drug-related definitions.
(11)Ok, if you’re a Wallace fan and you want to get into whether or not he’s a postmodernist or a post postmodernist or a metafictionist, I will gladly do so, but for the purpose of this article, I’m going to call him a postmodernist, and you can contact the website or wherever you’re reading this to get my contact information.
(12)McKay directed many of the Will Ferrell staples of the 2000s, including the Anchorman films and Stepbrothers, both of which are great, but not really serious works of art with anything to say.
(13) Debatable on who was actually running the White House during the Bush administration, vice-presidency seems to not accurately capture Cheney’s stint as V.P. Shadowy Puppetmaster Facist Semi-Dictator may be more accurate.
(14)See footnote 8.
(15)Leonardo Dicaprio reportedly had serious problems with this little detail, seeing Meryl Streep as, accurately, one of the greatest actors of all time and the tramp stamp as sort of, i guess insulting to her legacy? Meryl Streep, on the other hand, had no problem with it, as one would expect from one of the indisputable greats.