Monday, February 21, 2022


The justly acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke Hamaguchi has specialized in quietly involving works about how people relate to each other, from the sprawling friendships in his five-hour Happy Hour to the gently, teasingly twinned encounters of Asako I & II. His trifurcated Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is no different in this regard. We see long conversations in which people navigate tricky interpersonal situations. Through three separate short films, a placid framing draws gentle observation to words’ power to shift a dynamic in ways the participants in the scene might not even notice until it’s too late. Here’s a movie engaged with the intangible mysteries of connection: How much of our relationships—romantic and otherwise—exist as our own fantasies projected onto others? And how much of what we define as ourselves is instead our own assumptions about how others think of us?

The shorts in the triptych are dazzling and delicate dances of emotion and influence, openness and guardedness, attuned to the risk inherent in any exchange. In the first, a young woman shares with her friend about a great first date. That friend, though, doesn’t let on that she starts to recognize the man being described. Secondly, an older college student carrying on an affair with a younger one agrees to help him attempt to blackmail a professor he blames for career troubles. She does so by attending office hours and reading aloud a salacious passage from the teacher’s latest novel. Lastly, and most satisfyingly, a woman thinks she’s stumbled into a happenstance encounter with an old high school classmate, and hopes she can finally unburden herself of decades-old regret. Each story arrives, at some point, to a new personal or relational understanding for these characters, but in a way that feels as natural as lived experience, and as artful as a finely honed dialogue.

These scenes unfold with the patience and precision of a gemlike short story—tough, beautiful, spare, and packed with emotional intelligence in every syllable and gesture for maximum thoughtful impact. So small are the shifts they chart, and so hushed in design and simple in movement, that it makes each upending of expectation or revelation of character all the more revelatory. I found myself practically floating on air after the film’s final flourishes of insight. It digs so deeply into its characters lives, drawing out loneliness in and a yearning for meaning out of friendships, romances, and other entanglements. And it does so by imbuing the silences and the spaces between the words with as much weight as the lines themselves, allowing the fine cast to dance across deceptively small moments with the emotional clarity we only get from deep contemplation.

How satisfying, then, that Drive My Car, Hamaguchi’s other film of 2021, sustains a similar expression of deeply observed empathy and intricate emotional balances for three compelling hours. As Fortune and Fantasy finds three small ways people’s lives are disrupted by simple shifts in their understandings of someone in their life, Car is even more concretely about this sort of communication. Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, it’s built on the foundational assumption that we know as much about the people in our lives from what they avoid saying as we do what they do choose to share. There’s that interest in underplayed observation of small shifts of character or situation, where these intricate, delicate moments of change and connection are both gradual and all at once, major and yet never more than the soft touch of something patiently developed and achingly real. It layers the complications of character and situation with subtle attention to detail, and payoffs that satisfy before you even know they were set up.

One might recognize these qualities here as in a great interior work from a master of the short story form—an Anton Chekhov, say, about whom George Saunders recently wrote: “One of his gifts is an ability to naturally impose variety on a situation that a lesser writer would leave static.” And so it is with Hamaguchi here. He takes a series of situations built on repetitions, repeated circumstances and situations, the rhythms of routines. He films them in patient, steady frames. His characters, too, are stuck in habits of mind. But instead of allowing for the encroachment of stasis, his approach offers variety, each pass through a routine showing us more, deepening our understanding of and connection to the people involved.

It takes as its lead character a stage actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who begins the movie starring in a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and then, a couple years later, agrees to travel to Hiroshima in order to direct a production of the same. In the time between, his seemingly happy marriage comes to a sudden end. She (Reika Kirishima), a writer who loved inventing stories as she told them to him in post-coital bursts of creativity, and who helped him practice his lines by recording all the other parts on cassette for him to listen in his car, was a centering force in his life. Without her, he’s lost. He’s mourning this ending, and hasn’t yet found a new start. So he’s reluctant to take this new job, and even more reluctant to find the theater’s insurance demands they hire a driver (Toko Miura) to take him from practices to his hotel. He was hoping to use that time to listen to his long-gone wife’s voice. Instead, he’s forced, slowly but surely, on long trips and in practice sessions alike, to engage with others in the world again.

The film is transporting, moving, about art as a vehicle for expression and connection, with one’s self as much as with others. It’s about that indescribable moment of transcendence when connecting with greater truths beyond the specifics of the particular performance, and how that can feed back into one’s conception of self and relationship. In their long practice sessions for the play, our lead is committed to performing with each actor speaking in his or her native language—Japanese, Korean, sign language. It’s a move that makes them feel more remote form each other, practicing timing as much as anything, at first. But acting is reacting. Rehearsals should be about learning to listen. It’s not too pat to say this is a skill that should transfer to these troubled lives beyond the artifice of the stage, the performance of life.

Here’s a movie that becomes about speaking, listening, hearing, signaling. Here’s a movie about how to move beyond what appears to separate, and finding true, meaningful connection—friendship, collaboration, understanding—with someone. It’s about losing yourself to find yourself. There’s little wonder why the movie is rich with casually deployed symbolism—a lost man letting himself be guided around; actors who don’t understand each other learning to relate; a new chance in a city that couldn’t represent life and death, and destruction and rebirth, any more. The movie’s repetitions become fruitfully full of variation and meaning, and the characters, so well drawn all the way through, become only more vivid—breathtakingly engaged in their work and in each other. As one says about the process of actors discovering their roles: “It drags out the real you.”

Sunday, February 13, 2022

I Do, But I Don't: MARRY ME

I don’t think Marry Me will single-handedly revive the romantic comedy as a going concern, but it sure is a nice reminder why we miss them. It certainly helps that it stars two hugely likable performers whose careers might’ve been filled with more of these if the bottom hadn’t fallen out of the genre’s theatrical prospects. Jennifer Lopez plays a Jennifer Lopez type: a global pop star whose every move is hounded by gossip and paparazzi. (The one difference is age; it’s fun to hear the 52-year-old’s character described as “north of 35.”) Owen Wilson plays an Owen Wilson type, if he was a divorced middle-aged middle school math teacher. His friend (Sarah Silverman) invites him to bring his daughter (Chloe Coleman) to the pop star’s concert. The singer plans to marry her pop star boyfriend (played by actual pop star Maluma) at this sold-out show. But just before taking the stage for their vows, Page Six reports on his infidelity. Dazed and heartbroken, she points out at the crowd where Wilson happens to be holding his friend’s “Marry Me” sign. “Sure,” the singer says. “Why not?” Thus begins a whirlwind romance that starts as a stunt, stays surface weird for a tentative spell, and then slowly but surely becomes the real thing. You know the drill.

Lopez and Wilson make for a good pairing, believable both in the from-separate-worlds unlikely pairing and in the sweet, surprisingly simpatico, flirtatious first blushes of affection. Lopez has the hard outer shell of glamor and style, with the soft underbelly of an underdog. Wilson has a slightly spaced affect, warm earnestness, and shaggy melancholy. It’s fun to see these line deliveries and personalities mingle on screen, even as the picture around them sometimes strains for even a baseline believability. To say the things these characters take in stride, or shrug off, stretch credulity is an understatement. There’s not a single moment where the world they inhabit feels real—it’s all fizzy and fuzzy fantasy visions of both their professions. And the screenplay is loaded up with assistants and gay best friends and cute kids, each doing their turn in the margins to prop up the agreeable, sometimes charming, but never quite as funny as it could be scenes. But because the leads are so winning, and the movie stays so brightly keyed into their charms as performers, it stays just barely aloft as the cliches pile up.

It leaves no opportunity for a romantic gesture untaken—a school dance, a concert, a mathlete competition. You better believe there are songs sung, dances taught, signs held up, arrivals made last-minute, and announcements given dramatically in front of audiences. Some of these happen two or three times, even. It feels like watching Hollywood start up a long-dormant trope machine as the movie creaks and groans as it tries to find its way back to what used to be effortless. Director Kat Coiro and screenwriters John Rogers, Tami Sagher, and Harper Dill come from the world of sitcoms, and though the movie’s anamorphic style is suitably big-screen, the movie is often at its best in smaller, snappier, sweeter character moments than when it tries to explain its conceit’s ramifications in any concrete detail. And yet, the bigger cheery artifice of it all still manages to prove that rom-com tropes still work if done with even a minimal commitment. Even one just north of the Hallmark Channel movies’ quality can pluck the heart strings when the actors’ eyes twinkle with love as their faces draw near, the lighting gets soft, the music swells, and for a brief moment we might really believe a pop star and a middle school teacher can build a life together. (Speaking of: if any pop stars are reading this, my DMs are open.) This is the kind of harmless fantasy I wish we could add back into our regular multiplex diets.

Tech Help: KIMI

Of course now is the perfect time for a paranoid thriller. Leave it to director Steven Soderbergh to find a sharp way to shoot one in an anxious modern telling, and consummate blockbuster writer David Koepp to construct one so involvingly tightly-wound and lockbox sealed that it proceeds so quickly and craftily by its own clever logic and is practically over before it even begins. Kimi is the model of gripping efficiency, setting up a contained space and a clear set of variables that then twist the knife and speed the inevitable. And it's so of-the-moment it feels like it was shot next week. Set in a very now Seattle, with COVID on the wane and some small sense of normality slipping back into life, it finds its lead not quite ready to leave the comfort of her apartment. She (Zoe Kravitz) was dealing with trauma-induced agoraphobia before the pandemic, and the anxieties of disease and social distancing understandably didn’t help matters. Besides, she has a work-from-home job resolving mismatched commands recorded by an upstart smart speaker company. What could go wrong?

With these 30-second eavesdrops on people’s lives, she hears the usual mumbled commands and silly A.I. misunderstandings. (The machine seems a lot better than an Alexa or a Google bot, but here’s a movie that’ll do nothing to dissuade those of us who’d rather not invite a surveillance machine into our homes.) The plot takes a modern Rear Window turn (in a way much more smartly updated than the otherwise fine Disturbia from, oh, 15 years ago now?) when she thinks she overhears a crime. Shades of Blow-Up and Blow Out and The Conversation follow as she pushes and prods at the file to make it make sense, and figure out her next move. More than a touring riff on the great classics of paranoia-driven suspense pictures of this ilk, Kimi is an of-the-moment character piece told in fine detail and expert shorthand, wedded to the unrelenting momentum of its story.

Here’s a woman shaken up by the experiences of the past couple years, which have only exacerbated issues stemming from an assault prior to that. Kravitz plays the comfortable discomfort of her routine well, and then sells the physically taxing idea of stepping out with a skin-crawling sense of being trapped in her own skin. Why, even a FaceTime from a therapist sends her itching. An early scene sees her carrying on a flirtatious text chain with a neighbor from across the street, but she can’t make herself even open her door to meet him outdoors at a food truck. So of course she gets lost in something she thinks she can better control: the mystery in that audio file. We see her apartment decorated with the tools of the trade, but also masks and hand sanitizer and wipes. She’s a product of our times. I could relate to her reluctance to step out. So she digs deeper into her new technologically aided project? It does sound like a crime, after all. The better audio window she gets into the anonymous user, the more rattled she becomes. Soderbergh expertly situates steady, locked-down shots of her daily routine, the better to feel the sense of danger creeping into them, and to upend them with hurtling handheld anxiety on the outside.

When she inevitably, reluctantly has to leave her apartment to further her investigation, the camera zooms towards her like something out of Evil Dead, whips around her at canted angles, and races past only to spin around and catch her again. Other people in public can be discomfiting enough nowadays, even without the layer of unease she’s added on top of the usual. She’s trapped further by the thriller mechanics, and a cast of looming potential threats—a Romanian tech guy, a spying neighbor, an upstairs construction site, a sniveling tech company stooge, its smarmy CEO and his shady fixers. It’s all laid out skillful and credibly; it’s the kind of edge-of-your-seat suspense that is both totally enveloping in the moment, and completely sensible in retrospect. Because the filmmakers have hooked so powerfully into the mindset of their lead, and dove-tailed it so seemingly effortlessly with Soderbergh’s pet themes—here’s another of his dramatic expressions of contemporary ills in vivid genre tropes and character detail, like Unsane or Magic Mike—there’s a terrific sense of hurtling escalation. When we get to the climax, these elements are drawn together wonderfully in a cathartic final sequence that more than pays off everything that’s been set up.

This is an especially satisfying thriller all the way, with the nerve to say that our problems aren’t just the pandemic, per se, but the whole jangling anxiety of our overstimulated tech-captured and corporate-enraptured now. More than once, people or things are not what they seem, and not just because of the movie’s needs. We casually are shown staged Zoom backdrops and faked Instagram feeds in the course of this story’s telling, and not even as plot points. That’s just how it is these days, where the ground of our shared reality can feel like it’s shifting beneath our feet as we get lost in the layers of real unreality on our screens. (At one point, Kravitz dryly quips she can handle herself—“I used to be a content moderator for Facebook.”) No wonder we’re paranoid. Kravitz, who holds the screen as compellingly as ever, carries off this sense of constant tension, even in the quotidian, so intently and intensely that we don’t just want her to solve the case and dodge the complicating dangers. We want her to feel like she’s back, and safe, on solid ground. And don't we all?

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Taking Direction: PARALLEL MOTHERS

One of the great pleasures of seeing a new film from a director who has done good, distinctive work over many decades is the comforting feeling of knowing we’re in familiar, reliable territory. Ah, one can think, here’s that recognizable style and those usual preoccupations, done up in their confident aesthetics and in their pleasurably recognizable rhythms. So here’s Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers. The latest film from the great Spanish filmmaker is another of his intricate narrative designs that plays out so easily one can still be surprised by its emotional impact despite recognizing its moves. It stars Penélope Cruz—whose expressive features graced a half-dozen of his films—and has other frequent collaborators in supporting roles. It’s set in plush Madrid apartments painted with deep reds and blues and greens, decorated with artful textures, vintage photographs, vinyl records, and jamón on the counter. It flows with the usual sumptuous string score from Alberto Iglesias. It concerns itself with: birth and death, mistaken identity, miscommunications, mothers, daughters, sex, family secrets, fallible men, and things long buried or repressed resurfacing. It is, in other words, an Almodóvar film. For all the familiarity of the surface appeal, it also has the beguiling narrative propulsion, pulled along by powerfully underplayed melodrama, with which his most effective films work best. Watching it, one wonders what will happen next, and how the characters will react, not in an edge-of-the-seat way so much as the deep well of feeling and humanity that comes from closely observed curiosity and earnest empathy.

Here, in delicately doubled parallel narratives that draw closer, separates and draw close again, Cruz plays a single middle-aged photographer whose affair with an anthropologist is the cause of an unexpected pregnancy. She decides, given her age and prospects, to have the child. He doesn’t want to be involved, which is fine by her. She ends up, nine months later, sharing the maternity ward with a teenager (Milena Smit) whose pregnancy is similarly shrouded in the unexpected and the unspoken. They agree to keep in touch. As Almodóvar follows these new mothers, the story develops with complications both normal—women recovering from birth, navigating new living arrangements, rebalancing a career (or adolescent desires to strike out) with their familial obligations—and dramatic. The plot ultimately hinges on a couple paternity tests, dark secrets, some held too long, and others not long enough, and, finally, one big devastating turn. There’s high drama here, or at least potentially. (Almodóvar even provides a running subplot of Cruz’s search for a mass grave in her small home village, where her grandmother long claimed her grandfather was buried during the Spanish Civil War. Talk about drama!) And yet the actors present these turns with such ease and naturalism, speaking in soothing soft tones and melodic warmth even as they might be evading or obscuring their true feelings. The movie sets its enormous emotions on a soft simmer, letting the full weight of its heaviest moments push down unexpectedly in the design.

Similarly, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley is a work recognizably his own, with a design that is its own reward. It might even be doubly familiar (or triply) to anyone who’s seen the 1947 Tyrone Power-starring adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s novel. It’s a noirish carnival con man picture, relishing the seedy inner workings of the freak show atmosphere. Del Toro usually works his affinity for misfits, monsters, and castoffs. See it expressed in the likes of Mimic, Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth and his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water—a real monster mash of a filmography, always asking, who’s the real freak here? In this new film, that kinship finds, in some ways, its most human expression amid the dusty tents and flickering flames of its disreputable environment. Here’s a film that looks unflinchingly at a geek in the old fashioned sense of the term, a desperate man biting the head off a live chicken for a paying audience, clenching his teeth to slowly separate vein from muscle until the neck snaps. The film wonders what kind of a life takes someone to that moment. To answer, Del Toro, with co-writer Kim Morgan, finds a winding road through eccentric characters and blustering schemes. It’s a big cast—Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Ron Perlman, and Dave Strathairn, among others—of carny types, each given loving attention to the art of their grift and graft. It unfolds the ecosystem of the traveling show so patiently and in such detail I was reminded of Ricky Jay’s histories of magicians. The people in this movie are living on the margins, but there’s some kind of mad skill to what they do wrapped in the soft deception of audience appeal. They, like the film, and like a key image in the film, are a loaded pistol in a purse.

At the center is a charismatically recessive movie star performance from Bradley Cooper, one of those magnetic work of gestures and implication that’s compelling, and then only grows in power when he doesn’t speak. He simply exists, first as a lost man stumbling into this world, and then as a figure of increasing power within his person as he turns on the charm and shines up to move in fancier circles. That gets Cate Blanchett and, later, Richard Jenkins involved as high society becomes the scene of a newer, edgier, more personal con. No more swindling quarters out of gullible folk; it’s time to put on more elaborate faux-psychic charades for the high-rollers. The trick of the movie is how easily it moves between these early-20th-century spaces—the rural outskirts and the electric urban interiors, Dust Bowl chic and Art Deco glamor—with a consistency of tone and style. Here are damaged people damaging people, but their wounded souls are attracted and repulsed by the endeavor, and each other. The movie follows suit. It takes grand delight in the low pleasures of its population, and sinks ever deeper into the melancholic romance and eerie despair, both of which are all part of the game, too. It’s not dissimilar from an Edward Hopper painting in its look and feel some of the time—figures of loneliness in the vastness of (retro) modern life. If the movie sometime feels long, it’s because Del Toro can’t pull himself out of these scenes in these visual spaces with these complicated stock of characters; they’re too well-inhabited and handsomely dressed in sets expertly designed. I didn’t mind spending that time. These days, when movies can often feel so impersonal and bland, to groove on a distinct style and mood can be a tonic.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Falling Skies: MOONFALL and DON'T LOOK UP

Moonfall is so perfectly awful I was almost charmed. In this high-gloss chintzy approximation of an A-level blockbuster 90s disaster picture, the moon has been knocked out of its orbit. Every time it circles the Earth, it gets closer. That thing’s bound to crash. It’s such total lunacy—and gets weirder by the reel—presented with casual pomposity stretching beyond its budget. It has a choppy opening hour that over-complicates every subplot and races through exposition as if it half-heartedly realizes we won’t care about its convolutions. As the ensemble is brought on stage and the moon looms larger, the vast cast is sketched in with shorthand and cliche. There’s disgraced astronaut Patrick Wilson and glamorous NASA chief Halle Berry and annoying pudgy British wannabe scientist John Bradley, each with a part of the solution as to how to get the moon restored to its proper place before it touches down. Also in the mix are the usual ex-wives, step-fathers, elderly mothers, conspiracy theorists, foreign exchange students, troubled adult sons, adorable moppets, and a general with a key to the nukes and a reluctant trigger finger. All the while, passable effects whip up CG floods as tides go wild, flooding cities of panicking refugees and looters before, during, and after the gravitational disruption kicks off earthquakes.

Where once these sort of big-screen natural disasters lingered on their big effects moments, now they can just wallpaper indiscriminately until it leaves little impact. It’s the kind of movie that relocates the top of the Chrysler building and barely blinks an eye. (The best moments are the most novel, in a crackpot derivative way: a space shuttle outracing an enormous gravity wave, or exploring the secret inner chambers of the moon.) But there’s an odd underplaying throughout, like when a son looks at his father, on the brink of potential apocalypse, at the moment a last-ditch plan has fallen through and shrugs: “I’m sorry that didn’t work out.” The second hour is a little zippier, and moderately wilder, as the apocalyptic stakes cut between a daring mission into the center of the moon, and a family trying to get what appears to be a mile or two down the road back on Earth. The imbalance is a little funny. Par for the course is when the general stares down a guy who wants to bomb the moon and says: “You can’t do that! My ex-wife’s up there!!”

So it’s good for a few laughs, and it might remind you passingly of better sequences in other movies like it. But that the production is helmed by Roland Emmerich, a king of the industrial-strength big budget ensemble disaster flick, having Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 on his resume, gives it the distinct feeling of a director making his own knockoff. It hasn’t the balance between the spectacle and melodrama that the better versions of the disaster ensemble can pull off. Heck, even his own former co-writer Dean Devlin did a better spin on the all-star global calamity space-junk explode-o-rama with the under-appreciated gargantuan cheese wheel that was Geostorm a few years back. One of that movie’s stars, Gerard Butler, even did it well in a more serious register with the oddly affecting meteor-on-the-way thriller Greenland from Christmas before last. (It went VOD, like the bulk of that season’s offerings, so who knows how many actually saw it?) Just goes to show you we are in a little boom for talking our destruction to death. Gee, what could cause that? We can't expect every attempt to work well.

At least all of the above are better than Don’t Look Up. That movie imagines a world-ending calamity is on the way, and getting people to care about or even accept the reality of the situation, let alone examine possible solutions, is nigh impossible. Sounds familiar. Adam McKay wrote the movie as a climate change parable, but the intervening pandemic and its response surely fed into it as well. Here we open on two scientists at Michigan State University (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) identifying a planet-killing meteor that’ll hit Earth in a matter of months. They try to alert the government, but the president (Meryl Streep) is too image-obsessed and election-focused to care and demands the information hidden. (The movie’s funniest joke is her son (Jonah Hill) insisting on double checking the info with experts from a better college. Ha.) So the scientists try to leak it to the media, but most outlets don’t care, and the best they can do is getting laughed off a morning show whose hosts (Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry) can’t bring themselves to understand what their incongruously serious guests are trying to say. There’s clear anger in this telling, a well-intentioned ranting about humanity hurtling toward its doom and too ignorant and selfish to face it and fix it.

But as the movie spirals and complicates for over two hours, it stays on that grinding pitch of justified anger. It starts to seem less sharply targeted and more tiresomely mismanaged. The characters, no matter how well-acted by an all-star cast, are broad caricatures, and McKay’s rush to condemn doesn’t leave time to actually understand their motives. This is a bloated political cartoon stumbling backwards toward preordained conclusions. Compare it to, say, Dr. Strangelove, and you’ll see how Kubrick’s classic dark comedy of nuclear annihilation is a witheringly hilarious look at nightmarish Cold War logic precisely because it understands how fallible and specific personality types could stumble toward accidental apocalypse. Here, though McKay has understandable outrage at the prevailing forces of prevaricating pundits and the corrupt short-term individualism eroding all sense of common good, he’s made a movie that’s the equivalent of a “raising awareness” campaign. Yeah, I know, and I agree, somewhat, I think. But now what?

This sociopolitical comedy is still somehow McKay’s best of that sort, though this, Vice, and The Big Short are all considerable steps down from his Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step-Brothers heyday. He no longer makes exuberantly goofy comedies with serious subtext. Now he’s making self-serious political comedies where his Big Ideas are all on the surface where they won’t stop needling, jabbing, scalding, and condescending at the expense of entertainment and, just as deadly, a point that can get past the surface of the matters on display. Attacking shallowness with shallowness without even the deceptive nuance that, say, Verhoeven might bring, is awfully wearisome. He’s clearly an intelligent and passionate thinker—but when his works about Wall Street corruption or Dick Cheney flatten out the issue as they scream to the choir that it’s all our fault, too, well, if you’re going to think so little of your audience, at least you could actually be better than them. These movies are both contemptuous and scatter-brained. He really thinks he’s telling you something new and vital instead of repackaging common complaints. It looks at massive systemic issues and futilely wags its finger at the viewer. We’re all implicated, yes, but now what do I have to do about it?

As Don’t Look Up widens its lens, with some vigorous absurdities that sparkle here and there, it bogs itself down and clutters itself up with characters and plot lines all pushing in the same direction at the same grim pitch: our society is incapable of saving itself. Everyone’s pathetic and cringingly one-dimensional. There are red-meat military men (Ron Perlman) and weary astronomers (Rob Morgan) and social media celebrities (Ariana Grande and Scott Mescudi) and right-wing propagandists (Michael Chiklis) and progressive journalists (Himesh Patel) and a tech billionaire cutting a real Musky Zuckerbergian Bezoar (Mark Rylance), among others. No one can meet the moment. Of course there’s even a right-wing messaging movement to just avoid the issue entirely. “Don’t Look Up” becomes their rallying cry. (Years of “if climate’s changing, why do we have winter?” and “if masks and vaccines work, why is there still COVID?” make even that sadly believable.) To watch a government and society flailing in the face of overwhelming disaster is painfully familiar. That the movie is willing to condemn a shallow media, lying right-wing authoritarians, and neoliberal corporate shills is not nothing. But the cast is stranded in a movie with ugly blocking and clanking rhythms, scenes that feel hacked together and indifferently covered, unable to build up character or perspective beyond the movie’s insistence that all of these horrible, fallible people are worthy of our scorn.

Though there’s plenty of blame to go around, the movie ends up somehow too much and not enough. Yes, this is a close match to the lunacies we’ve seen lately, and it carries that out to its logical calamitous conclusion on an apocalyptic scale. But it’s not exactly a thrill to see a movie as mean and absurd and judgmental as those it’s trying to condemn. Its final image of cynical comeuppance—spoilers: a nude body double standing in for a beloved actress getting chomped by a CG creature—is the ultimate grotesquerie. By then, the whole final stretch of the film leading up to it, a wild mix of surprise unearned sentiment and nihilistic cynicism and cheap nasty gags, has already made it clear the movie has nothing meaningful to explore or suggest. What a bracingly stupid movie: whipping up a frenzy of ugliness to serve as a funhouse mirror of our current problems and expecting us to thank it for its meager insight. Hey, at least it has a couple laughs, too.