Adam McKay’s highly anticipated new film “Don’t Look Up” lands right in the heart of awards season, and is largely a culmination of the two sides of McKay’s career. His earlier films, which include “Anchorman,” “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers,” and “The Other Guys,” are silly comedies that feature outlandish premises, hilarious sight gags, and eccentric characters. However, McKay broke from his strictly comic background with “The Big Short” and “Vice.” These two films explored real-life events from recent American history, and while there was an element of comedy in each, McKay also spotlighted critical issues threatening the heart of our democracy.
“Don’t Look Up” is a fictional story, but its satirical depiction of a fragmented United States that copes with an impending crisis is about as timely as you can get. McKay is certainly not subtle in his depiction of an incompetent, highly nationalistic presidential administration that refuses to listen to scientists. While the film was written and shot in 2019, its science fiction premise is a surprisingly perfect metaphor for the COVID-19 crisis.
McKay is a popular filmmaker in Hollywood, and he’s certainly never struggled to assemble a massive cast. Here is every character in “Don’t Look Up,” ranked worst to best.
“Don’t Look Up” will most certainly be a major awards contender this year in many categories. Surprisingly, one of them might be best original song. Ariana Grande appears in the film as the pop megastar Rile Bana, who joins Mindy and Kates’ activist group. She performs her single “Just Look Up” to spread awareness about the impending asteroid strike. It’s a very funny moment that offers insights on celebrity activist culture, but unfortunately Rile simply isn’t that interesting of a character.
Rile first appears when she is interviewed on Jack and Bries’ morning news program, and the extensive time dedicated to her break up only drags down the film’s pacing. McKay’s point is rather obvious: The news media isn’t focusing on the critical issues, and chooses to highlight tabloid stories instead. It’s a point that’s well taken, but it’s not explored in any real depth. Rile doesn’t serve any plot point greater than that, so she ranks at the bottom of the list.
British actor Himesh Patel delivered a breakout performance in Danny Boyle’s musical comedy “Yesterday,” and he’s been cast as similarly charismatic characters in films like “Tenet” and “The Aeronauts.” This is a trend that abruptly stops with “Don’t Look Up,” as his character, Phillip, is almost completely unlikeable. The boyfriend of Kate, Phillip is a journalist who is only interested in chasing headlines and getting clicks on his articles.
Compared to the more obvious villains in “Don’t Look Up,” Phillip is a more subtle antagonist. Phillip is apprehensive about his relationship as Kate’s activism increases, and he ultimately betrays her. However, Phillip essentially disappears from the film midway through, and his fate isn’t something that McKay seemed interested in exploring. That’s too bad, because there’s lots of potential in showing how Phillip reacts to the increased paranoia that comes later in the film. While he serves an important plot purpose, Phillip is simply too irritating of a presence to rank any higher.
“Don’t Look Up” features many characters who are obvious stand-ins for real public figures. For example, the conservative news anchor Dan Pawketty is an overt reference to the pundits on Fox News. Pawketty is played in a memorable yet brief performance by Michael Chicklis, who sadly hasn’t appeared in that many films following the concussion of “The Shield.” He constantly questions the facts that Mindy and Kate lay out, and introduces conspiracy theories that are popular among Orlean’s supporters.
Pawketty’s scenes are memorable, but of all the characters in “Don’t Look Up,” he feels the most underutilized. A fiery, ignorant news anchor could have played a major role in the story, but Pawketty rarely interacts with any of the other principal characters. Chiklis is a terrific actor who could use a career boost, and it’s unfortunate that he’s given little more than an extended cameo. However, the character is funny enough that he doesn’t belong on the very bottom of the list.
“Don’t Look Up” offers a searing critique of the Trump administration and “Make America Great Again” culture, as President Janie Orlean is a less than subtle analogy for the 45th president. Orlean’s willful ignorance about science and the impending disaster make her completely loathsome, as well as a frightening mirror of actual politicians who refuse to listen to experts.
Meryl Streep’s performance is very broad, and while she’s entertaining in her scenery chewing, her character doesn’t offer any real insights. There have been plenty of Trump parodies and stand-ins in comedy films, sketches, and TV shows over the course of the past decade, and there’s not a whole lot that makes this one unique. Streep does a great job bringing Orlean’s fiery speeches and inflammatory public appearances to life, but the writing lets her down.
One of the key themes of “Don’t Look Up” is how the seductive nature of the media can transform people’s morality. Dr. Mindy becomes swept up in an affair with the malicious journalist Brie, which wreaks havoc on his home life. The affair is particularly heartbreaking given the sensitive performance by Melanie Lynskey, who plays Mindy’s wife, June. In a film that’s constantly focused on spectacle, June is one of the bystanders who is simply confused about the ramifications of the asteroid strike, her husband’s new role, and what the future will look like.
Lynskey is such a great actress that, even though June doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, each of her scenes has an impact. Her confrontation with her husband reveals a well-earned bit of anger, and the closing moments she shares with her children are quite poignant. Unfortunately, outside of being married to DiCaprio, her skills and interests aren’t explored very well, making her somewhat one-note.
Tyler Perry is perhaps best known for his activism and the films he directs, stars in, and produces. However, he’s also proven to be a strong dramatic actor in more serious films, and has given memorable supporting performances in films like “Star Trek,” “Gone Girl,” “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” and McKay’s “Vice.” “Don’t Look Up” gives him the chance to explore both his comedic and dramatic sides; while his character is one of the more overtly comedic in the film, his performance results in a very realistic depiction of a plastic morning news anchor.
Jack Bremmer co-hosts a “Good Morning America”-style morning news program with his co-anchor, Brie Evantee. They interview Mindy and Kate as the news about the asteroid strike breaks, but the headline-seeking anchors only banter with the scientists and don’t focus on the severity of the issue at all. Bremmer has a few hilarious one-liners, even noting that he hopes the asteroid will destroy his ex-wife’s house. Unfortunately, it’s a satire of the sad state of journalism that feels a little too real.
Bremmer is integral to how “Don’t Look Up” portrays the public’s reaction to the impending disaster, but since he doesn’t appear in many scenes outside of the news program itself, he ranks slightly lower here.
Timothee Chalamet is certainly having a big year. That’s mostly thanks to the success of “Dune” and “The French Dispatch,” but he manages to pop up in “Don’t Look Up” as well. Chalamet has a critical role as Yule, a young skateboarder, slacker, and burgeoning philosopher who invites Kate to join his strange group of friends when he spots her working behind the counter at a grocery store. Yule initially appears to be nothing more than a wild hooligan, but he ultimately proves to be one of the most sincere and thoughtful characters in the film.
Yule isn’t disrespectful of Kate, despite recognizing her from various media blunders, and his genuine invitation to her differentiates him from the other, largely toxic male characters in the film. Chalamet himself perfectly embodies the “freshman philosopher” persona, and his performance in “Don’t Look Up” sees him lampooning his own reputation. Yule’s existential musings are bizarre, and prevent his scenes with Kate from becoming too cloying or sentimental.
Chalamet strikes a more poignant note with the character in the final moments of “Don’t Look Up.” It’s a strong supporting performance that doesn’t attempt to steal the spotlight from any of the leads — it’s only his late introduction into the film that hurts his ranking.
“Don’t Look Up” is certainly not subtle in its depiction of a highly nationalistic right wing ideology that closely resembles the Trump administration, the “Make America Great Again” movement, and social conservatism. Among the most hilarious caricatures within the film is Colonel Ben Drask, a former military commando who has become a mythic hero in the eyes of the right wing party. Ron Perlman embodies the gruff, politically incorrect spirit of a character that the film notes is “of a different generation.”
Drask was once tasked with motivating children to get healthy by the Orlean administration, but his constant screaming resulted in a media blunder. However, Orlean calls upon Drask again to be the public face of Mindy and Kates’ plan to divert the incoming asteroid strike. There’s no reason for a manned vessel, but Orlean figures that she could hardly galvanize her support base with “boring scientists.” Instead she needs a patriot, and Drask is the man for the job.
Perlman is absolutely hilarious as a broad satire of a grizzled war veteran. Although his casual racism, sexism, and xenophobia are fairly uncomfortable to listen to, Drask is depicted more as a dull idiot than an overlty villainious one. The horror that comes isn’t from Drask himself, but the idea that this moron would have any actual power. However, Drask unfortunately doesn’t appear in enough of the film’s second half to rank any higher.
“Don’t Look Up” paints a scary portrait of the news media and the stories that tend to dominate the headlines. In the face of an asteroid that will ravage the surface of the planet and wipe out human civilization, broadcast and digital publications choose to focus on celebrity gossip and clickbait headlines. The epitome of this all-too-real satire of the state of journalism is news anchor Brie Evantee, played by Cate Blanchette.
Brie and her co-host Jack interview Mindy and Kate about their discoveries, and skip over serious details in favor of making small talk. She helps demonize Kate, noting her eccentric personality and stigmatizing her paranoia. Blanchette perfectly captures the artificial nature of many news anchors, and she’s among the most loathsome characters in the film.
Brie’s story arc grows even more infuriating when she threatens to disrupt Mindy’s home life. She works to make the bumbling scientist anxious by flirting with him during their initial press conference, and they soon begin an affair. A pivotal scene in which Brie taunts Mindy’s wife June is particularly heartbreaking, due to her cruelty.
Jennifer Lawrence achieved immense stardom at a very young age. And yet, while she’s known for a range of great performances, Lawrence has never tackled Adam McKay’s improvisational style of comedy. Thankfully, she fits in perfectly with the rest of the ensemble as Dr. Kate Dibiasky.
Kate discovers evidence of the impending asteroid strike and immediately shares it with Mindy. They receive a meeting with Orlean’s administration, during which Kate becomes shocked by the officials’ defiant attitude. She instantly clashes with Jason, conveying the same frustration that the viewer feels. Kate’s increased anxiety makes her an unstable presence as the movie goes on, and Lawrence expertly captures her paranoia when she’s singled out by Orleans and kidnapped several times. Kate’s activist spirit also makes her clash with Mindy, who is interested in working with the government to try and change their minds.
Kate appears in some of the funniest sequences in “Don’t Look Up,” including her breakdown when talking to Brie Evantee and Jack Bremmer, and the aftermath, when she’s forced to deal with the humiliation of becoming an internet laughingstock. Kate gets more emotional moments towards the end of the film as she grows unexpectedly attracted to Yule; while Kate initially finds his loudmouth personality is off-putting, she eventually finds some truth behind Yule’s existential musings.
Veteran character actor Rob Morgan delivers an understated yet hilarious performance as the government scientist Dr. Clayton Oglethorpe. Oglethorpe works directly with Orlean’s administration and isn’t part of Mindy and Kates’ original research team, but upon meeting them he instantly understands the gravity of the situation. Oglethorpe begins to help the pair during their initial meeting with Orlean, and he’s just as shocked as they are that the federal government isn’t interested in doing anything about the impending crisis.
Compared to some of the film’s more fast-talking characters, Morgan is equally as hilarious with his subtle line delivery. He has a sad, defeated attitude about the state of world events, and is skeptical that any of their efforts will be successful. Oglethorpe must deal with constantly being sidelined, as he and Kate are often denied access to key research meetings by Orlean, who prefers the new media sensation, Mindy. Morgan helps capture the gradual friendship that emerges between Oglethorpe and Kate, and serves as the voice of reason in their relationship.
During the closing moments, Morgan’s dramatic gravity helps highlight the message that McKay is conveying. Morgan also gets to deliver what is perhaps the film’s best one-liner with a reference to Sting.
Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the greatest actors of the 21st century, and is known for both his extreme versatility and his collaborations with great filmmakers. Despite his reputation as a serious dramatic actor who chooses challenging roles, DiCaprio has frequently proven to be a great comedian as well, with hilarious turns in both “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Dr. Randall Mindy is a complex character, and DiCaprio is able to make his dramatic arc compelling. Mindy is shocked by Kate’s initial discovery of an impending asteroid strike, and he’s eager to talk to the government authorities who can do something about the situation. However, Mindy is surprised that Orleans’ administration is doing nothing about the crisis, and frequently ignores his research. As Mindy attempts to be an activist for the cause, the media latches on to him and he becomes an overnight sensation. Mindy struggles with being a celebrity given his technical background, and DiCaprio captures his discomfort brilliantly.
Mindy’s arc grows more complex as a result of his struggling marriage. He deeply cares for his wife and adult sons, but becomes swept up in an affair that threatens to destroy his happy home life. Mindy also spars with Kate about what type of role they should play in aiding Orlean’s administration.
Mark Rylance is an interesting addition to the cast of “Don’t Look Up,” as he doesn’t have the comedic background that many of his co-stars do. However, Rylance’s highly unusual performance creates one of the most memorable (and frequently one of the most disturbing) characters in the film. Rylance’s slow speech patterns and various idiosyncrasies make him a change of pace from the fast-talking politicians and scientists that surround him.
Peter Isherwell is the head of a media and technology company, and is modeled off of figures like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos. Isherwell is so obsessed with his own technological creations that he’s completely oblivious to normal human interactions. While it’s funny to see Isherwell miss social cues, he also fails to recognize the cost of human life that results from his research. Isherwell sees every new invention as a chance to score a profit, and his greed is almost amusing considering how bafflingly weird Rylance is in the part.
But Isherwell is legitimately dangerous due to his connections to the United States government, as he’s a top member of President Orlean’s inner circle. Orlean frequently relies upon Isherwell’s research to guide her decisions, even when he attempts to mine a new profit opportunity amidst an impending asteroid strike. Fans will want to stick around for a fun post-credit scene that reveals Isherwell’s fate.
Jonah Hill has had one of the most interesting career arcs of any modern Hollywood actor. Hill began his career as a comedic personality with roles in “Superbad.” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” but gradually transitioned to more serious material, earning Academy Award nominations for his supporting performances in “Moneyball” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
“Don’t Look Up” allows Hill to merge both sides of his career with his hilarious yet timely performance as Chief of Staff Jason Orlean. The son of Meryl Streep’s grotesque president, Jason is a loathsome figure and a potent metaphor for the Trump children, yet Hill is so funny in the role that it’s hard to look away. McKay is known for his rapid-fire dialogue, and Hill manages to dominate the screen, even when he shares it with Hollywood veterans like DiCaprio, Streep, and Lawrence.
Jason enjoys belittling the scientists, frequently denying Kate the chance to have a snack and pushing back their scheduled meetings. He’s so absurd that even his mother seems somewhat embarrassed by him, as she attempts to cut him off during a few key speeches when he runs on too long. Hill’s performance embodies the central message that McKay is trying to convey with “Don’t Look Up”: The future of mankind’s existence is in the hands of complete idiots.