It was, I believe, my father who introduced me to the phrase "he thinks his shit don't stink" as a pithy way of denigrating the kind of person who is arrogantly convinced of their righteous infallibility. I will not say of writer-director Adam McKay, and his newest film, Don't Look Up, that he thinks his shit don't stink. On the contrary, I am fairly sure that McKay thinks his shit smells like lilac bushes on a bright May day, or like a luxurious bubble bath, or like oranges and cinnamon at Christmas. Perhaps he puts pails of his shit in every corner of the house to make it smell airier and more charming for his guests. Three times makes a trend, they say, and over his last three consecutive films - The Big Short in 2015, Vice in 2018, and Don't Look Up now - McKay has made it inescapably clear that, no matter who you are, what your expertise or life experience consists of, or what's at stake, he is serenely confident that he is much smarter than you are.

There's one promising development, at least: Don't Look Up includes almost none of the exhausting stylistic tricks designed to make the film feel like a horrible living infographic found all over the other two movies. Almost right at the start, McKay and editor Hank Corwin literally stop the film in its tracks for an ironic, sarcastic title card and a visual cutaway, but this is basically the only time this happens; otherwise, they just let this be, like, a movie. An entirely bland, generic-looking movie, but it's better than the alternative. In any case, it mostly focuses on the travails of a pair of astronomers: Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence), a PhD candidate at Michigan State University, and her advisor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). The film is, incidentally, just flat-out fucking obsessed with describing Kate as "a PhD candidate", and speaking as a PhD candidate myself, I found this mind-numbing. It's a jargony way of describing a senior grad student that basically doesn't have any meaningful usage outside of the bureaucratic structure of higher education administration. But good for McKay, he did his research, so a PhD candidate it is to be. Anyway, Kate has just spotted a comet whipping its way straight towards Earth and when it arrives in a little bit more than six months, it will create an extinction level event. The two scientists must now communicate this fact to the world and try to goad people into taking immediate action to maybe do something that might stop this from happening, though they are not optimistic.

The film that tumbles out over the course of 142 wildly aimless minutes is a sprawling grab-bag of unfunny and dumb satire and considerably less dumb character drama, though I think you could probably fit almost all of it into one of three large buckets: 1) metaphor for climate change and how we're not doing anything to stop it; 2) conservatives refuse to Believe Science™; 3) smart phones, social media, and infotainment have turned our collective brains into a big puff of cotton candy. In other words, three variations on "haha, these dummies are are dumb, why aren't they smart like I am?", and McKay puts this over with such unbridled arrogant that he's made me actively root against a whole bunch of ideological and philosophical positions that I'm at least conceptually in favor of. But we should expect nothing less of the man whose heinous, wretched, insulting Vice - and I'll say this in favor of Don't Look Up, it never had that degrading feeling of someone pissing on my kitchen table that I got from almost all of Vice - ended with that hall-of-fame godawful joke about how enjoying films in the Fast & Furious series makes you complicit in war crimes. Insulting his lessers has very much become the thing Adam McKay is most excited to do these days; as far as the comedy and satire goes in Don't Look Up, I'm genuinely not sure if I can recall one single joke that isn't predicated on that fundamental sense of superiority. As a character drama, it's better. Not great, sometimes good, always better.

Anyway, it takes a fuck of a lot of a balls to use satire as a cudgel against basically everybody else but you and your celebrity friends when you're this goddamn bad at satire. To take just the easiest target: the first of many obstacles Kate & Randall encounter is a profoundly disinterested presidential administration that finds astrophysics boring and confusing, and intends to do nothing about this terrifying information. This is all embodied in the form of President Orlean (Meryl Streep), who is incomprehensibly playing a character who can be best described as "what if Donald Trump was also Hilary Clinton?". So on the one hand, blind incuriosity; on the other, smug Ivy League credentialism. On the one hand, oafish provincialism; on the other, sneering technocratic condescension. On the one hand, making America great again; on the other, yass kweening. She even wears both red and blue pantsuits at different points in the film. It would be one thing if Don't Look Up was an ultra-Marxist "everybody to the right of Trotsky is morally indistinguishable" screed, but it is extremely clearly not that, so I don't even have the smallest inkling of what the hell President Orlean is about (or why she shares the surname of the real-life character Streep played in 2002's Adaptation.). And Streep would seem to agree with me, given that she doesn't seem to be making even a single acting choice, but just charging right through dialogue like this was a table read. So the end result is actually "what if Donald Trump was also Meryl Streep?", which is even more inexplicable.

The media satire is somehow even worse; the political satire is at least targeting an identifiable problem that actually exists in the world, but the contempt the film pitches at TV chat shows and social media influencers seems to be aiming at a target that exists only in the heads of McKay and former Bernie Sanders speechwriter David Sirota (who co-wrote the story). The main thrust of the film - insofar as it has one single target, which is hard to say with something this scatterbrained, but I think this would be that one if it existed - is that in the event of a global-level apocalypse rushing in, the chattering classes who run the newsmedia would be too busy gossiping about celebrity break-ups and make-ups (Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi gamely line up to be the sacrificial lambs for this witty, sparkling, not-even-slightly-stale thread of social commentary) to confront the uncomfortable horrors waiting for us in the real world. And this is, I'm sorry, just a completely fucking demented thing to try to argue through a film that was shot during the 2020-21 pandemic. We have learned in the last two years that the media is salivating for an apocalypse. It is their absolute favorite thing in the whole world to talk about. And as far as using social media to distract yourself from the bad things in life - "don't look up", as the title says - the word "doomscrolling" entered common usage because that is the literal exact opposite of what happened to broad swaths of humanity. I get that the film is a climate change metaphor, not a pandemic metaphor, but really, just come on now. And maybe if the film's jokes were actually funny, this could be overlooked, but it is very firmly wedged at the level of "hahaha, idiots use Instagram", and carried on the backs of Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry as the shallow, venal trash people who host a chat show, and I think it says just about all there is to say about Don't Look Up that Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry could end up giving more or less identical performances within it. Though Blanchett ends up getting to do it over the course of more scenes.

Gasping for air in the midst of all this, there's actually a pretty decent drama about Kate and Randall and how they cope with their terrible knowledge that everybody is going to die horribly. The script does absolutely no favors to Lawrence, whose job is to scream in terror whenever the plot needs a kick in the ass, but DiCaprio's performance is honestly quite good, some of the best work he's done in a while. And he's not actually treated all that well by the script, either - the climax of his character arc and thus, arguably, the climax of the whole film, comes no less that 51 minutes prior to the end - but at least he gets things to do and real emotions to play, and a right proper ringer to bounce off of in the form of Melanie Lynskey as his longsuffering wife. He also gets roped into several scenes with Blanchett once their characters start having an affair, and since this development is nonsensical, unrelated to anything else in the film, and impossible to make sense of in the context of what we know about these people, it's not surprising that neither actor can find much of a way in. Blanchett, at least, seems to understand that these scenes would benefit from being played as absurd comedy.

The point being, though, there's something in there that works: smart but unsophisticated people staring in the face of the imminent demise, and going through a whirlwind of bad choices and emotional instability as a result. This is absolutely never the story that McKay wants to tell, preferring his smug screeching about how indescribably shitty and dumb we all are for not having... stayed in the Paris Accords? It's really hard to figure out what McKay wants, other than to prove that he believes more righteous things than people who don't want to spend every single waking moment being furious. But he still has enough instincts as a filmmaker that some part of him clearly knows that the film's strengths lie away from all of that, and in the basic details of how scared human beings grab the little scraps of meaning we can find in the face of oblivion. He starts to lean harder and harder on this as the film progresses, eventually finding a subplot for Lawrence that works when he pairs her up with a thoughtful dipshit teenager named Yule (Timothée Chalamet, knocking all of my expectations for a loop by being the only person in this ludicrously overstuffed cast who reliably knows where to find the humor in the material he's been given). It even flits with sentimentality for a bit near the end. And so there is something to this: it's not steady improvement (there are, for example, both a mid-credits and post-credits scene, and both are dreadful), but it's certainly better in the second half than the first. Which isn't saying much: the first half is vile, and the second half is at its best when it is at its most trite. Still, as a follow-up to the unwatchably arrogant Vice, Don't Look Up does manage to beat the odds by having at least some humane moments buried in the sludge. It's not much, but... no, it's really not much at all.