Release Date: December 24th, 2021
Director: Adam McKay| MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 7/10
During the early 18th century, a wave of poverty had struck the nation of Ireland. The Industrial Revolution was looming, and social and political class divisions had intensified, reinforced by religious associations to and honor for the upper class. The poor were neglected and maligned, creating a prime opportunity for religious, political, and social upheaval. In 1729, as a response to the economic ills of the impoverished and overlooked Irish, an anonymous essay was published offering a solution for those in particularly dire straits. Referred to today as A Modest Proposal as an abbreviation of its verbose original title, the author offers a perhaps unforseen possibility for the poor: they could simply sell their children as food to the wealthy in exchange for financial compensation. After outlining the terrible conditions of the time, he proceeds to detail this seemingly realistic solution, writing:
“A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”
While published as a straight-faced suggestion, the work had far more satirical purposes in mind. Written by Jonathan Swift, an Anglo-Irish essayist, poet, and cleric at the time, A Modest Proposal served as a scathing rebuke of the general disdain for the poor that pervaded the culture, and ultimately sought to reform the various social and political evils commonplace at that time. Considered one of the greatest satirical works in English literary history, Swift’s darkly comic approach sought to spark real, practical change in a nation and world mired in destructive injustice.
Fast-forward to 2021, and we find the world just as broken, with new expressions of the same sorts of problems. And once again we find cultural critics utilizing the genre of comedy to expose the facade of success and enlightenment that pervades Western culture. Indeed, we’ve received a Christmas gift of a film, released on December 24th to Netflix, from writer-director Adam McKay, entitled Don’t Look Up. Attempting to conjure the spirit of Swift from centuries before, McKay enlists an arsenal of stars (Leo Dicaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry – and the list goes on!), taking aim at our own political and social institutions via a tale of a comet on path to destroy the earth as we know it. McKay’s work laughs its way to utter desolation, providing a perfectly postmodern expression of satire, full of despair and devoid of hope.
The film opens by introducing the audience to PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), whose research leads her to the discovery of a comet. Following a celebration of this landmark achievement, sure to put Dibiasky on the map, her colleagues–headed by the anti-typecasted Dicaprio in the role of Dr. Randall Mindy–come to the startling realization that this discovery is one of eminent destruction. Dibiasky’s comet is on a collision course with earth, set to destroy the entire planet in less than seven months. Naturally, the two astronomers rush to inform the White House, but are met by a president (Meryl Streep) and her Chief of Staff (Jonah Hill) that are arrogantly dismissive of the urgency of the matter, concerned instead with how this news might advantage them in the upcoming midterms. They then take their report to the press, but the response isn’t much better: the news is either buried at the end of a feel-good talk-show or memed into oblivion. The film proceeds to expose the nature of our modern world, which–often hilariously and always tragically–discredits, ignores, or monetizes their impending doom. Using the all-too-real images of nepotistic executive power, divisive social media, and an “everything is fine” social status quo, McKay’s work is quite on the nose: even when we are presented with our own eminent demise, we will fail to take meaningful action to stop it.
The climate change crisis is McKay’s obvious parallel here, and Dicaprio’s role at the center only reinforces the scathing, and warranted, message. The performances and writing are terrific, as McKay continues to display an effective comedic pen; though we may be 18 years removed from Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the farcical instinct remains strong in him. This time through, however, the social commentary of the film actually seems almost too connected to our real world. Rather than seeming all that exaggerated, the responses to such a fast-arriving destruction are exactly what one would anticipate to happen in real life. Each laugh carries a cringe, for the farce is as much in our world as it is in the film; our culture has become a satire of itself, and so to enter into McKay’s world and laugh with it is ultimately to condemn even ourselves.
The film seems aware enough of this factor, and this is perhaps what makes it the perfect postmodern expression of satire: it understands itself as an expression of the very thing it is parodying. For all the film’s critiques on celebrity culture, it also is propped upon a foundation of famous performers. For all its criticism of our feel-good culture (a terrific introduction scene of Mark Rylance’s Peter Isherwell illustrates this in the film perhaps most explicitly), McKay is using a feel-good genre to convict us of impending doom. And for all its emphasis on the failure of humanity to avoid its self-destructive nature, the film fails to provide any semblance of hope in anything different, mired instead only in despair. Which, it seems, is precisely the point: it is successfully tying itself to the failure of humanity, in a grim commentary on our world’s inability. In this way, it seems intrinsically connected to the other comedic hit from Netflix’s prolific 2021 lineup, Bo Burnham’s Inside, where the comedy is at once scathingly cynical and still stingingly self-aware. In one of his original songs, Comedy, Burnham sings the following:
“The world is so f***** up. Systematic oppression, income inequality,
The other stuff…
And there’s only one thing that I can do about it.
While— While being paid and being the center of attention
Healing the world with comedy
Making a literal difference, metaphorically.”
Both Burnham and McKay are tapping into the ethos of our postmodern condition, which sees not only the corruption of humanity and institutions, but lacks the trust or hope in anything meaningful to redeem said things. Indeed, even our attempts to do so will be rooted in the very hubris we are attempting to correct. The result is an age of comedy that laughs only to cry, a spoonful of sugar that will acidicly eat away at the soul upon the closing credits. In this way, McKay’s latest piece is indicative of our present day, a cultural artifact so stooped in its own time that it can’t help but be reflexive. In Don’t Look Up, we gaze into a mirror into our cynical and self-destructive ethos, laughing and avoiding and memeing our way into the inevitable abyss.