The “bonkers” nature of contemporary life makes it harder for even an Oscar-winning satirist like Adam McKay to stay ahead of the curve.
Case in point: Just a week before the Netflix release of his new asteroid-threatens-Earth comedy Don’t Look Up, NASA reported that a “potentially hazardous” asteroid was due to enter our orbit Dec. 11 — and that the object probably contained minerals “worth $4.8 billion.”
The space rock will miss us, but still, the fact that we’re pricing “near-Earth objects” as big as the Eiffel Tower whizzing by at 14,000 mph is worth noting — and is noted, hilariously, in Don’t Look Up.
Somehow McKay, who wrote the script three years ago, was able to anticipate a day when an asteroid would be viewed as a threat to human life, and also (gulp) a profit center. The writer/director finds myriad other ways to riff on how an extinction-level event might play out in our polarized, hucksterized, internet-addled culture. High point: Ariana Grande plays a pop star who writes a song (possibly the best movie tune since Everything is Awesome) to “raise awareness” of the approaching asteroid.
“I think one of the things the movie does is allow us to process, through laughter, the craziness of the last five or 10 or what I would argue is the last 20 years,” said McKay, who poked fun at media foolishness in his Anchorman movies and at warped financial incentives in The Big Short (he won an Oscar for the script).
Don’t Look Up (in theaters Dec. 10, on the platform Dec. 24) has those same themes, but also looks acidly at the way every issue nowadays turns into a red/blue tug-of-war. That dogged partisanship is its own kind of cultural asteroid, an existential threat for comedians and filmmakers like McKay who’ve struggled to find ways to make polarized audiences laugh.
“Comedy kind of got frozen five or six years ago. What’s been a problem is: What can we all agree on to laugh about? And when I talk to friends of mine who voted for Trump, or family members who voted for Trump, or the most progressive of my friends, they all agree that the world is bonkers right now. That’s something everyone agrees with,” said McKay, who grew up in Malvern and started working in stand-up comedy while attending Temple before moving onto improv, SNL, and Hollywood.
McKay’s lucrative career paid for his solar-powered house, and he had climate change on his mind when he wrote Don’t Look Up. As he pondered the script, forest fires had come close to his sister’s place in Oregon, and then his own property near Pasadena.
“Look, if the world heats up four degrees Celsius, it’s just jellyfish and cockroaches, and maybe not even cockroaches. I felt like I wanted to do something about this, but how do I do it? I had no interest in making a big, heavy, dystopic, depressing movie. And for some reason I was thinking, you know, it would be nice to laugh,” he said.
The scenario he came up with: Scientists Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence discover an asteroid that will hit earth in six months, but they have a hard time competing with celebrity gossip on news shows (hosted by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) or impressing a spin-obsessed White House (Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill) in thrall to a billionaire tech weirdo (Mark Rylance).
There are real-life analogues to some of these characters, and they exist across the political spectrum — McKay wanted to spread the targets and the laughs around.
“That is part of the premise of the movie: What is this world we’re living in of careerism, hackery, manipulated social media, celebrity culture, everybody chasing clicks? I thought that was a pretty good foundation for something. And sure enough in our test screenings, whether they are conservative or liberal, everyone was laughing, so that excited me,” McKay said.
Lawrence’s character has a boyfriend who uses social media to monetize their relationship as soon as she becomes newsworthy — just one way the Don’t Look Up looks at destructive cultural forces that transcend politics.
“I think the essence of the whole movie is that we’ve broken the lines of communication. We’ve profitized and twisted and bent the very ways in which we communicate with each other,” he said.
Don’t Look Up can be called a comedy (distant cousin to Dr. Strangelove), but it has sobering implications that McKay wanted to honor in the final scene. His ending might not have survived a traditional studio story meeting, but Netflix was cool with it.
“We were on pins and needles during the test screenings, because normally you just don’t end a movie like that. That pact, the covenant with Hollywood, is: Give us a happy ending,” McKay said. “But, in our movie, (the ending) is consistently rated as the No. 1 scene. The comments were like, thank God you didn’t wrap it up with a nifty bow.”
The hyper-busy McKay, a basketball fanatic, has just finished a podcast for Apple called Death at the Wing, about the deaths of so many promising basketball players in the 1980s (Len Bias, Terry Furlow, Drazan Petrovic, Ricky Berry).
McKay is currently working on a nonfiction series about the rise of the Lakers dynasty, also in the 1980s, and their famous rivalry with the Celtics.
McKay spent his first years near Boston, became a Sixers fan growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and is now living in L.A.
It’s supposed to be possible to be a fan of the Celtics, Sixers, and Lakers, so I asked McKay if he has dared to cross the streams.
“Oh no. I’m not a Lakers fan. No. No. No. I lived in Worcester for a few years, so I came over (to Malvern) as a Celtics fan, hung on to the Celtics through high school, but when I went away to college, I realized I was tracking the Sixers more. So, for me it’s the Sixers, and now my friend Daryl Morey is the team president, so I talk to him a lot and have even more of a connection to the team. I’m always bothering him with trade ideas.”
So far Morey has adopted none of them, so McKay has time to concentrate on his many Hollywood projects.
Also on the agenda: He’s producing a series for HBO based on the Miami Herald’s reporting of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.