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‘Don’t Look Up’ and ‘Red Rocket’ Reviews

On Trump-era cinema.
December 10, 2021
‘Don’t Look Up’ and ‘Red Rocket’ Reviews

Don’t Look Up is either a clarion call demanding a clear-eyed reexamination of the priorities of our political, media, and business classes or a screed preaching to the choir, one that hopes to satirize a time that is almost completely immune to satire because everything that occurred during it was so absurd all of the time.

The setup is fairly simple: PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet and Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) calculates that it is hurtling directly toward us. Armed with telescopic imagery and the incontrovertible math of orbital mechanics, Dibiasky and Mindy bring this to the attention of President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and her chief-of-staff-slash-idiot-son Jason (Jonah Hill), who quickly attempt to bury it so as not to distract from the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice.

Stymied by the political class, Mindy and Dibiasky turn to the press. These stand-ins for the New York Times and Morning Joe quickly reveal themselves to be uninterested in this world-ending threat because Dibiasky has a meltdown on live TV and the story didn’t do quite as much social traffic as the newspaper hoped. Meanwhile, Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance)—a Steve Jobs- or Elon Musk-style billionaire businessman who sees himself as a visionary—hopes to capture the flaming ball of certain death rather than deflect it from Earth in the hopes of mining precious metals from it.

In other words: Writer-director Adam McKay has penned a not-terribly-subtle metaphor for climate change and the myriad ways in which we have all failed him and his allies in the movement to save planet Earth. Subtlety can be overrated—Dr. Strangelove featured a deranged American general delightedly talking about tens of millions American deaths from nuclear war as a best-case scenario, after all—but subtlety also helps avoid annoying people by hectoring them.

Such worries are for the weak. McKay knows filmmakers who use subtext and considers them all to be cowards.

In the desire to torch all targets at maximum burn, McKay loses control of the metaphor a bit. The title of the picture comes from a command by the Trump-esque White House to literally not look up into the sky in order to avoid seeing the comet that is hurtling toward Earth. Except, earlier in the film, the White House was touting the economic upside of letting the comet crash into Earth in thousands of pieces to mine it for minerals. Which is it?

Meanwhile, Dr. Mindy is appropriated by the administration to appear on kids shows and in television ads to tout the safety of the initiative; sporting his eyeglasses and talking up the wonders of science, he sounds . . . well, a bit like Anthony Fauci. And after rejecting the Orlean-Isherwell plan to crash and capture the comet, Dibiaski and Mindy engage in a bunch of awareness-building that culminates in a concert that . . . doesn’t really change anything. As a critique of the celebrity-industrial complex’s impotence, it’s amusing—though I wonder if noted environmentalist DiCaprio understands he’s the joke here.


Sonny is joined by Tim Miller to discuss Don’t Look Up in a special bonus episode of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood. Listen on your preferred podcast app now!


But Don’t Look Up is still occasionally quite funny, particularly when it dips into the absurd; there’s a running gag about a general who charges the scientists for the snacks in the White House breakroom despite the fact that they’re free, and I’ll admit that I guffawed when a BuzzFeed-style writer published an essay about sleeping with Dibiasky, whose rant on live TV has turned her into a meme. Ron Perlman has a very amusing turn as a legendary, and legendarily politically incorrect, astronaut charged with saving humanity from rocky death. And Jonah Hill hasn’t been this funny since, I dunno, Wolf of Wall Street; he just has great, cutting comic timing.

And I will say this: The film’s closing image of a family at peace with each other as doom hurtles toward the planet is incredibly poignant, a reminder to be kind to those we love when the world around us is out of our control.

Simon Rex in ‘Red Rocket’

Don’t Look Up finds itself overwhelmed by targets in the age of Trump, and one can understand the sneer that McKay and his cowriter/Bernie Bro David Sirota adopt when portraying the hayseeds with their barely literate signs and their ballcaps and their decision to reject capital-S Science at the behest of a charlatan who lets her kids run her policy shop. It is, always, tempting to sneer; our lips involuntarily curl into one when confronted by people we detest arguing for positions that we find insane.

But the temptation to sneer rather than dissect can lead to a lack of focus, and Don’t Look Up is incredibly unfocused, almost distracted. Though the former president is never mentioned, Don’t Look Up is overwhelmed by Trump, consumed by his presence. The film erupts like a firehose, spraying every target with its stream of contempt. A howl of rage might feel good, but one wonders what it actually accomplishes.

Red Rocket, on the other hand, does mention Trump. But very subtly. Sean Baker’s story of Mikey Saber (Simon Rex) a male porn actor—he’d consider himself a star, though men are rarely the stars of heterosexual porn—who returns to his small Texas hometown is set in 2016. As such, we see the occasional Make America Great Again flag waving in the foreground; the national conventions flit across the TV that Mikey and his estranged wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod), share with Lexi’s mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), and we hear some of the speeches. But these political oratories earn about as much attention from the trio as your average Judge Judy rerun, the MAGA flags are background noise, like the oil refineries pumping away.

Mikey’s a smoothie. He’s able to worm his way back into Lexi’s house despite having abandoned her after she burned out of the adult industry. He’s able to talk the local drug queenpin into loaning him a bunch of weed to sell so he can rebuild a nest egg that will take him back west. Mikey convinces next-door neighbor Lonnie (Ethan Darbone) to give him rides around town, filling Lonnie’s head with stories of stardom while using him for his wheels. And he’s charming enough to seduce Strawberry (Suzanna Son), the almost-18 girl at the local donut shop into first being his girlfriend, then taping a sex scene on her phone, and then convincing her to come out to Los Angeles to become an adult actress just as she’s coming of age.

Thus, we find ourselves watching a story set during the summer months of 2016 about a charismatic conman able to convince those around him that he’s not so bad, and that if they support him he’ll deliver unto them a better life—or, at least, make them feel better about themselves again.

Feels . . . familiar.

Importantly, Baker never sneers at Lonnie, Lexi, Strawberry or anyone else in Mikey’s orbit. We understand why these people fall under his sway: he’s not only captivating, he fills their heads with stories of stardom. There’s a variety of reflected glamor that accompanies his exploits. Even as they debase themselves on his behalf, you can kind of understand why they would do it, even as you’re silently screaming “No, stop, can’t you see what he is?”

A film like Don’t Look Up is, understandably, more immediately gratifying for folks who have spent the last five or six years mouth agape at what’s going on in America. But Red Rocket is a subtler, superior effort to explain how we got here through a work of art. It is also one of the best, and one of the most empathetic, movies of the year.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association