By Angelo Muredda
Before he became a 21st-century Stanley Kramer, cited by GQ in a recent profile as “the grown-up in the room,” Adam McKay played the more comfortable role of American comedy’s slouchy, politically savvy older brother. Improbable as his progressive-daddy glow up of the past few years might seem, the Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder, former Saturday Night Live head writer, and Academy Award-winning writer-director planted the seed of his transformation early in his predominantly unserious comedy fare. Take Step Brothers (2008), where we meet Derek (Adam Scott), the bane of developmentally arrested fortysomething protagonists Brennan and Dale’s (Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly) existence, not least because he’s Brennan’s more accomplished younger brother. McKay immediately paints the oily helicopter leasing agent as the picture of American largesse in a self-contained introductory set piece that takes place in his SUV. His hair slicked back and his body adorned with the amateur stock-trader uniform of a leather jacket and a Bluetooth accessory in his ear, the family scion leads his Ralph Lauren-clad wife (Kathryn Hahn) and Lacoste-sporting Aryan children in a protracted a cappella performance of Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’Mine.” Aggressively stage-managing his brood from the driver’s seat—presumably to later trot them out at the “Catalina wine mixer” he hypes as the height of his profession—Derek clocks as the ultimate McKay heel, his entrance a taste of the skewering of the ruling class that the director would bank his later career pivot on.
McKay’s righteous anger at the mediocre heirs of the American corporate empire has gotten more pronounced in the years since Step Brothers opened with a modest jab at outgoing president George W. Bush, who provides the epigraph, “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.” (“Actual quote,” McKay adds, reminding us that he was the brains behind SNL’s 2000 election skits.) In recent films he’s been more deliberately channelling that rage into his next act as a resuscitator of the bygone social-issues picture, although each new chapter in that authorial biography has brought diminishing returns. With his apocalyptic climate change dramedy Don’t Look Up, McKay has sanded down his satirical teeth to about as flat as they’ll go, in an effort to appeal to as broad a coalition of normie liberal audiences as an ornery film can hope for. A self-satisfied jeremiad about a nation and a species lowering its standards to the point where it can only process acting on extinction-grade events at the level of taglines and slogans, Don’t Look Up is the work of an artist-agitator in a holding pattern, stuck in the transition from smart comedies about dumb people to insecure, self-flattering, and ultimately scattershot commentary.
Although The Big Short (2015) is often pointed to as the fulcrum of McKay’s transition to serious movies, its rage against the machine that caused the 2008 global financial crisis is predicted in the end credits of The Other Guys (2010), which unfold as a didactic Power Point presentation on the recent history of Ponzi schemes. Its great success as a rebranding effort aside, The Big Short is also the Rosetta stone for McKay’s peculiar weaknesses as a topical dramatist with comedic impulses. Based on the Michael Lewis book of the same name about the “scrappy outsiders and losers” who saw what no one else could about the housing bubble’s impending burst, The Big Short is a lumbering, baggy affair, tickled by its own formal ingenuity in translating Lewis’ backgrounder about complex, impenetrable issues into a glossy visual explainer anchored by a cast of movie stars. Unburdened by the written word, McKay breaks the fourth wall throughout with stunts like throwing to Margot Robbie (playing herself) in a bathtub to explain subprime loans and recruiting the late celebrity chef and surly smart guy Anthony Bourdain to analogize collateralized debt obligation in terms of a three-day old halibut repurposed as a fresh fish stew.
It’s a testament to McKay’s knack for populist entertainment that he’s not afraid to use such ice breakers to cut through the stolidness of more typical prestige pictures about the recent past. Eventually, though, those pops of cleverness betray McKay’s uneasiness about letting the material play without comment, and his literalist compulsion to underline every beat. We see this plainly early on when Steve Carell’s skeptical trader Mark Baum complains that everyone is walking through the streets of New York City like they’re in an Enya video, unable to see the world as it actually is. Unwilling to let the character’s joke stand, McKay visualizes Baum’s perspective, depicting him walking through a parade of ignorant, smiling couples fresh out of an Old Navy ad—hapless and annoying lambs to the slaughter. Baum’s resentment at the way white-collar criminals hoodwink the victims of their financial misdeed is palpably felt, as is his later melancholy when he muses that the collapse of Morgan Stanley and its ilk is more likely to be blamed on poor people and immigrants than on predatory lenders. But those moments of despair are undercut by the preciousness with which McKay treats every aside as an opportunity for mildly amusing juxtapositions and oversaturated pop-culture montages. If The Big Short signals McKay’s belated artistic coming-of-age, a productive rerouting of his earlier irritation at the Catalina wine mixer set, it’s a regressive one: channelling an unhealthy degree of that irritation at the hapless civilians who can’t see through people like Derek, and patting itself on the back for pairing every bon mot to a novel image, as if he is forging the first feature-length infographic.
With Vice (2018), McKay skips the middle man of Lewis and reaches straight for Shakespeare’s history plays as a reference point for his ambitious pop history of Dick Cheney (a swollen and physically unrecognizable Christian Bale) humble-bragging from the outset, in another ostentatious title card, that staging a biography of one of the slipperiest figures in recent American politics is no picnic, “But we did our fucking best.” No one would accuse McKay of not trying: Vice is even more aesthetically fussed over than its predecessor, a montage of montages about how a mediocre man without principles came to redefine executive power and destabilize the geopolitical world, remaking it in his own paranoid image. The film isn’t structured as much as it is incessantly interrupted: by Shakespearean dialogues in iambic pentameter; by extended visual conceits that analogize Cheney’s deliberate machinations to beef up his “nothing job” into something consequential to the work of a careful angler (Cheney’s Secret Service codename); and by tastelessly cross-cutting from George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) announcing the invasion of Iraq while nervously tapping his feet under the desk to an Iraqi civilian doing the same while taking shelter under a table. As in The Big Short, the canvas is also primed with a folksy but ironic voiceover narration, revealed in the last act to be supplied by Cheney’s eventual organ donor (Jesse Plemons), who is also a victim of his forever war.
McKay’s diverse aesthetic taste occasionally hits on something in spite of its hyperactivity. He’s on solid ground when a green Cheney is coached by a seasoned Donald Rumsfeld (Carell) to appreciate the power wielded in dingy hallways and under-lit rooms, which the beta Cheney imagines through a series of insert shots to bombed villages in Cambodia that punctuate the present moment outside the threshold of an office where Richard Nixon is meeting Henry Kissinger. For the most part, though, this predilection toward juxtaposition is just an excuse to overstuff the film with what might uncharitably be called political content—cultural detritus from the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush eras that might have once been grist for McKay’s SNL skits. Worse, the mean streak that used to be aimed at Wall Street hollow men is now directed not just at Cheney and Bush (the latter of whom comes off as an affable stooge, as he did in Ferrell’s SNL interpretation under McKay’s watch), but toward frivolous Americans who consume cultural pablum. It’s tempting to contrast McKay’s obnoxious statement of purpose with an early shot of a young woman blissing out in a club while the narrator drones on about how in the wake of 9/11, some were all too happy to ask a bully like Cheney to take the wheel. Unlike his own Herculean efforts to prosecute the case against Cheney, he suggests, some everyday Americans did not do their best while the world burned in their names. Tellingly, Vice ends not with Cheney’s soliloquy about how he doesn’t care about the audience’s indictment of him for a war of choice that resulted in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens, but with its own curious act of condescension against hypothetical audiences: members of a fictionalized focus group for the film, who devolve into fistfights about the leftist bias of the “libtard” filmmakers and wistfully announce they would rather be watching a Fast and Furious movie.
Much as The Big Short’s distractible essayistic structure predicted Vice’s experimental flourishes, Vice’s increasing resentment toward disengaged rubes lays the groundwork for Don’t Look Up’s buffet-styled satire of the human race, which frowns in disapproval at the dark economic and political forces poisoning the planet but really sharpens its knife when it comes to how people consume social media and news shows. With Don’t Look Up, those Enya-listening, Fast and Furious-stanning, non-playable characters from McKay’s previous big-boy pictures are now on the receiving end of a threat more totalizing than either the market collapse or the Iraq War: they are the future victims of an enormous comet, which is first recognized by Michigan State Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and measured by her supervisor Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). What ensues after their initial discovery and attempts to convince national authorities to act is a madcap, star-studded allegory about the various forms of inertia that must—and yet cannot—be overcome to convince narcissistic Westerners of the immediacy of the climate-change emergency.
Co-conceived by Jacobin editor, former Bernie Sanders advisor, and progressive Twitter warrior David Sirota, Don’t Look Up is a dithering message movie about how difficult it is to voice a warning to people who won’t hear one. It exacerbates McKay’s anarchic aesthetic while dulling down his bite by casting its satirical net as widely as possible so that there’s something for everyone to be a little angry about. Though some of the film’s more vocal defenders in outlets such as Current Affairs and Forbes contend that it strikes a direct hit on the bourgeois media class, such that all its criticism stems either from climate denialism or hurt feelings, one has to tune one’s hearing to an impossibly high frequency to perceive a coherent argument against the corporate media amidst its bluster. After Kate and Randall’s findings of impending doom are blunted by the head of NASA—revealed, in a nice touch of McKay’s old anti-cronyism, to be a former anesthesiologist and presidential mega-donor—and dismissed by corrupt and self-absorbed US president Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep, resurrecting her Jessica Lovejoy voice from The Simpsons), they take to the media. The media in McKay’s and Sirota’s conception, though, consists of a Today Show-styled talk show hosted by a pair of manicured jackals (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) who bicker like the hosts of Morning Joe; a gossipy, woke Buzzfeed-style rag that Kate’s opportunistic boyfriend (Himesh Patel) writes for; and a traditional newspaper called The New York Herald, which breaks the story but otherwise appears to exist solely to track the Google Analytics of the pair’s first unsuccessful media appearance on the chat show. Each of these institutions is ripe for lancing, but McKay and Sirota can’t get past these broad napkin sketches, for all their decades of respective experience as insiders within both political comedy at NBC and political broadcasting and journalism at various radio stations and newspapers.
McKay’s sharp instinct for character-based satire is lost amidst this broad farcical logic, which, like his cardboard stand-ins for media outlets, offers up wet-noodle critiques of (pro-comet) caricatures instead of trenchant insights about actual political factions. It’s hard to know what to make of Streep’s and Jonah Hill’s career-worst performances as, respectively, the uninterested president (party unnamed, but probably Republican) and her son and chief of staff. These thin characterizations say little about the ruling class’ political intransigence and decadent refusal to live in the world of their voters, but a lot about the script’s palatability to the kind of soft liberals it is ostensibly critiquing. Fully half of Hill’s lines appear to be improvised riffs on Kate’s insults toward him, repeating the last words of her previous line like a snotty parrot; the rest are bad pantomimes of Twitch-streamer entreaties to “like and subscribe,” and idiosyncratically urbane remarks to the red meat-craving conservative base about the political family’s “cool-rich” status, the kind of thing you wouldn’t hear a populist politician bragging about at a MAGA rally.
If this is a riff on the ascension of aloof, well-connected stuffed shirts like Jared Kushner—the perfect McKay failson, as the inheritor of a dynasty of financial crimes who has been parachuted into public office—it’s an ineffectual one at best. Despite the film’s warm reception from some in the leftist political circles in which Sirota works, it also fails as a critique of lifeless Democratic activism, a bugbear it is too shy to name lest somebody turn off the movie. The writers hatch the wannest possible parody of the self-defeating energy of “just vote” moderates when the “Just Look Up” campaign takes off in the last act, as Randall (now an Anthony Fauci-level-popular public health celebrity) and the Ariana Grande-like pop star Riley Bina (played by Grande herself) encourage the American populace to recognize the danger in the sky rather than deny it. Sirota might have taken notes from the way American centrists organized, phalanx-like, against his own candidate when he was in pole position in the Democratic primary.
Worse than this bloodless and vague political commentary, McKay muddies his initially promising critique of the opportunism of the billionaire class, who ultimately damn the planet by lobbying the president to mine the comet for resources and then break it up into smaller rocks, rather than blast it out of the sky while they have the chance. Though the scheme that socially maladjusted tech CEO Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) comes up with is inspired in its depravity—a mix of gold-rush optimism and desperate hopium that results in average Americans like Kate’s mother declaring that they’re “for the jobs the comet will provide”—McKay can’t seem to decide whether his Muskian villain is primarily incompetent or actively misanthropic. The film is never sharper than when Kate finds herself amidst a group of normies fronted by religious small-town skater boy Yule (Timothée Chalamet), one of the only representatives of the hoi polloi we meet outside of a pair of international disaster montages straight out of a Roland Emmerich movie. Burned after her brush with power, she nuances their cynicism about the ruling class’ back-up plans: “They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for,” she says, offering an incisive (if outdated) Bush-era diagnosis of the banality of corporate evil. Yet that sentiment is almost immediately undercut by the denouement, which suggests that maybe they are that smart after all.
For all its purported boldness in deciding to level the planet, Don’t Look Up is most defined by its wishy-washiness, this inarticulate groaning masked as lucid complaint. McKay’s mid-credit ending beyond the ending is illustrative of his shortcomings as a displaced opinion columnist working as a filmmaker: not content to end on the quiet dignity of his genuinely moving first ending, a cozy end-of-days Thanksgiving gathering between the science-minded leads and their families and friends, he compulsively throws to the nouveau gilded age of the saved, the space-bound ark of CEOs, world leaders, and lobbyists who put themselves in cryogenic stasis, assuring us that they’ve mostly survived their hibernation only to portend a worse fate than death by comet. It’s the perfect encapsulation of a political filmmaker stuck in neutral, communicating less and less the more he says.
Adam McKay, Don’t Look Now