The Snacks Were Free: Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay, 2021)
McKay’s satire is not the best movie of 2021, but it is the most 2021 movie of 2021.
First things first—this newsletter has a new name. We’re coming up on the year when my new book, The Temps, will come out, and I need a little more freedom in what I write about. Hence the pivot.
That said, what’s the first thing I’m writing about with this newfound topical freedom? A movie. [Insert shrug guy emoji here.]
There’s a recurring gag from Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up, his recent Netflix film about scientists who try and fail to get the American political establishment to take an Earth-killing comet seriously. The gag is kicked off when the astronomers, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) and Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) first visit the White House to report their apocalyptic findings. As they wait outside the Oval Office, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff goes to a kitchenette to get them some bottles of water and bags of cheese crackers.
“These things are so expensive,” he says as he hands them out. “It’s ten bucks a person.”
The scientists search their pockets for cash to reimburse the general.
Later, when he’s gone and Kate goes back to the kitchen for more to eat, she realizes that they’ve been lied to.
The snacks were free. The general scammed them.
It’s an interesting moment, an unsettled element in a film where a little too much is settled, a symbolic work so tidy that it’s almost mathematical in its this = that formulations. The comet equals both climate change and COVID-19. Dibiasky and Mindy are Fauci/Birx figures, doomsaying scientists who are hailed and demonized in equal measure. Meryl Streep’s President Orlean is a female Trump, and her followers’ refusal to be cowed by the catastrophe hurtling toward them in the sky equals many conservatives’ absolute refusal to give a shit about COVID-19 or climate change, their refusal to mask or get vaccinated, to support climate-friendly legislation, to believe science when it is inconvenient to them to do so. This is all relevant and important, as far as it goes, but at times (a lot of times, to be honest), it’s hard not to imagine McKay behind the curtain, stage-whispering, “Do you get it?!”
Dude. Yes. We get it.
But the general’s free-snacks scam doesn’t quite fit in this symbolic language, doesn’t signal in the same way the rest of the film does. Where Don’t Look Up is, at its worst, a little too certain about everything—too obvious in its allegory, and too confident that its view of American culture is insightful and correct—the free-snacks gag is specifically about uncertainty, about not-knowing. It doesn’t make sense, Kate knows that it doesn’t make sense, and she also can’t let go of it, can’t stop wondering about it, throughout the film.
What was the deal there? Why did he lie about the snacks? He had to have known we’d find out the snacks were free eventually, right? He probably didn’t need the money, didn’t need to be scamming White House visitors for pocket change. So why did he do it? Was it a power thing?
What the fuck is wrong with people?
True satire is hard to pull off. The ostensible purpose of the genre is to critique society by portraying its contradictions blown up to ridiculous extremes, so that the audience can perceive its hypocrisies, obsessions, and moral failings more clearly, with fresh insight. But in its execution, satire must navigate a narrow path, both morally and aesthetically, with pitfalls on either side. The core challenge has to do with just how obvious, how over-the-top, a satirical portrayal must be in order to hit in exactly the right way with the audience. Too obvious, and the satire is going to come off as moralizing and unsophisticated—an aesthetic failing. Too subtle, and you open yourself up to a critique of actually celebrating the thing you’re trying to critique, of allowing the audience to leave with the impression that a bad thing is actually good—a moral failing.
McKay, who began his career with comedic work like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy but has turned to cultural criticism with his more recent films, frequently commits the former failing—the aesthetic one. What has united his films in this phase (The Big Short, Vice, and now Don’t Look Up) is their desire to explain things to the audience, and in McKay’s seeming fear, with each movie, that the audience simply will not understand what he is up to if he doesn’t come right out and explain it.
In The Big Short, a Wall Street movie about the 2008 mortgage crisis, this tendency came through in a scene in which the more complex financial elements of the movie’s plot were explained by Margot Robbie in a bubble bath. I thought The Big Short was fine, but I didn’t like this scene—I felt as though I’d suddenly wandered into a different, dumber movie, and McKay’s method (look, a hot woman in a bath!) actually had the opposite of its intended effect, distracting me from the details of the story by making me wonder at McKay’s use of this bizarre device. Vice, McKay’s 2018 film about Dick Cheney, largely abandoned traditional storytelling for a film made almost entirely of these distracting explanatory methods. As a result, the film views as little more than a Cliff Notes summary of every Mother Jones article written between 2003-2008.
You can almost imagine the McKay approach to other, more ambiguous works of cultural criticism: an alternate-universe Wolf of Wall Street in which Leo breaks character to tell us that he doesn’t condone Jordan Belfort’s behavior, or a McKay-helmed version of Succession (he’s an executive producer) in which Billie Eilish cuts in on the action to sing a song about how Logan Roy is a Bad Guy.
Long story short, I went into Don’t Look Up thinking I probably wouldn’t like it very much. But my reaction turned out to be more complicated than that. I could go point-by-point through what I think are the film’s satirical hits and misses (Jonah Hill’s Don Jr. stand-in, utopianist billionaires, “we support the jobs the comet will bring”: hit; the vapidity of newsmedia and social media: miss), but the core of it had to do with my reaction to the film’s central conceit
What happened was that I kept having this debate with myself, throughout the film, about whether this core metaphor—climate change as planet-killing comet—was good or bad satire. Generally I found myself frustrated by it, because there are so many ways in which a comet is not climate change. A comet hurtling toward Earth is a clear and urgent danger, but climate change—and, to an extent, COVID-19—is a different kind of disaster, a slow-moving one that lives in some kind of apocalyptic Goldilocks zone: bad enough to cause incredible harm, but not so immediately bad that humans will actually mobilize or inconvenience themselves in large enough numbers to do anything about it. The premise of a comet being ignored by American society was funny but too broad, I thought, to sustain a whole movie. Good for an SNL sketch, perhaps, but at feature length, the metaphor starts to strain. Would a president (even a bad one) really shrug off news of an extinction-level event in 6 months’ time? Would news anchors really laugh and banter their way through a segment about the end of life on earth?
Well, actually…maybe? I still don’t know the answer to that question, but the more I watched, the more I realized that my frustration at the broadness of McKay’s satire was, occasionally, an impotent rage and hopelessness at the plausibility of the vision the film lays out, in which humans are incapable of addressing even the most obvious and solvable problems we face. Rage and hopelessness that’s been building through the pandemic, but which I can only occasionally allow myself to feel, if I want to continue to function in my everyday life.
I still don’t know if things would go—if they’re going—exactly the way they go in Don’t Look Up. But after the year we had? I don’t know, maybe they would. And maybe that maybe, that internal struggle of mine, is a sign that the satire in Don’t Look Up is actually…pretty good.
Look, Don’t Look Up isn’t the best movie of 2021, but I do think there’s a pretty good case for it being the most 2021 movie of 2021. The one that most perfectly captures the “fuck, man, I just don’t know” powerlessness of living in this time when we can’t get any progressive legislation through Congress even though Democrats technically hold both chambers and Trump is still hanging around somehow and a handful of unelected justices are chipping away at human rights and the human race faces a handful of serious, existential challenges—while meanwhile we can’t solve the pandemic right in front of us in the absolute easiest way imaginable (just get a vaccine!), or even agree on a single definition of reality in which the problems threatening our future as a species exist.
Maybe the film isn’t even satire, so much as a primal scream from within the rage and unbearable grief of living through these times. In its way the film may be less of a piece with Vice and The Big Short than it is with earlier McKay work like Anchorman or “The Landlord,” that old web video in which a little girl (McKay’s own daughter) curses out Will Ferrell for being late on his rent. McKay’s core strength, I believe, is still that of a comic sketch writer—a guy who can identify a promising idea (this one guy is a major douche; a little girl swears at a grown man; the world is ending but no one cares) that contains within it oceans of untapped rage and sadness, then just sort of mess around with that idea in the company of other creators and performers in a way that sometimes misses—but also hits, when it hits, hard.
If I ever have grandchildren and they ask me what it was like to be alive in these times—not what happened, but what it felt like—this may well be the piece of art I show them. A film in which some of the most famous actors of our time took our rage and grief at what we’ve become, what we’ve revealed ourselves to be, and made a three-ring circus out of it. A work not so much of liberal smugness but of deep anguish and uncertainty, not so different from Jennifer Lawrence’s uncertainty in the face of an American general’s seemingly pointless scam involving free snacks.
Why live this way? What is wrong with people?
The scene that’s hitting me hardest, days later, is the last one, in which the scientists sit around a table with Dr. Mindy’s family, minutes away from the end of the world, talking about what they’re thankful for. Their gratitude, at the end, for having been given the opportunity to live for a while as part of a tragic species on a doomed planet. And Mindy turns and says, “We really had it all, didn’t we?”
Yes. We had it all. As individuals, and as a species, we had it all. We had life, and love, and art, and culture, and science. We had the means to solve our own problems, at our fingertips. We had the ability to make a better world. It was within our grasp.
The snacks, in short, were free. They were free for the taking, but we acted as if they weren’t—and the only difference between our world and the world of Don’t Look Up is that their world ran out of time and ours hasn’t.
For another heartfelt satire about the end of the world, can I recommend my book, The Temps? It’s coming out March 29, 2022. It’s getting some fantastic buzz and reviews, and if you read this newsletter all the way to this point, chances are you’d probably like it. It’s about a group of office workers riding out a global apocalypse at the giant corporate complex of the company they worked for. Novelist Adam O’Fallon Price says it’s “a comic adventure for our uncertain times”; Booklist, in a starred review, hailed it as “a vivid experiment in millennial disillusionment.”
Pre-orders are incredibly important to a book’s success, so I’m asking everyone to purchase a copy wherever they buy their books. You can get it at all the usual places. Links below: