“This is nuts! This is so crazy!”
Genre: Dark Satire That’s A Bit Too Close To Home
Release Date: 2021
Where I Watched: Netflix
Gist: Kate Dibiasky is just your average, run of the mill astronomy grad student, kicking back at the Subaru Telescope and singing along with Wu-Tang. When she notices a new comet, her professor Randall Mindy does the math and realizes that comet – soon to be known as Comet Dibiasky – is on a collision course with earth, and will cause an extinction level event. Before anyone can say Armageddon, the world pulls together to stop imminent disaster. JK; the population of the US is torn into fractious sides who’ll do anything but take this threat seriously. Parallels, I see you.
Talky talk: Up is a choppy, overly busy, fourth-wall-breaking storyline along the lines of The Big Short, which works well within this absurdist comedy. A star studded cast that seems to be enjoying the hell out of goofing on the myriad of ways human beings can be short-sighted and self-interested makes this an enjoyable watch. But there’s a whole lot of filler here, with characters pulled into directions that may mimic our real live divides, but looks way too crazy on screen. Those jokes about how the tenure of a certain former guy would feel like bullshit if it were fictionalized? Yeah. Put Idiocracy, Armageddon, and Wag the Dog in a blender, hit frappé, and then sift out everything but the histrionics. Boom, you’ve got this film.
I have to commend writer/director Adam McKay for creating such a scathing look at our modern day apathy, and how our country seems to love nothing more than pitting ourselves against ourselves for the love of our own self aggrandizement. But a film that seems to want to be Monty Python-esque turns into a story with too many overly silly beats that fall flat. And it’s definitely not the fault of the talent. We’ve got tons of God-tier level actors digging into the material with gusto. Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio as Kate and Dr. Mindy. Mark Rylance as a Elon Musk/Steve Jobs hybrid. Tyler Perry and Cate Blanchette as self-absorbed TV personalities. Freakin’ Meryl THE GODDESS Streep as a not-so-thinly-veiled (now-former) POTUS echo, with Jonah Hill as her sycophantic son/Chief of Staff. But they seem to be given free rein, which ends up feeling like McKay had the whole thing dialed up to 11, then ripped the knob off. Lawrence and DiCaprio screech and scream, Rylance looks overly medicated, Le Streep feels more Florence Foster Jenkins than The Devil Wears Prada, and Hill’s only direction seems to have been “go crazy with this, the more stereotypical millennial the better”.
For all this, I blame McKay’s non-existent touch; he’s got a great head for stories and satire, but precious little ability to feel out overkill in his actors performances. Doesn’t matter who you get to be in your production, if you don’t let them know the beat to land on? It’s gonna look and feel off-putting. If you yourself don’t seem to know what you want from them? Doubly damning. Thank god for Rob Morgan’s scientist Teddy Oglethorpe, a quiet voice amongst the chaos, whose subtle performance feels like the eye of the hurricane.
The good? This score has a crazy cool, hip, 60s beat that fits well with its Dr. Strangelove level of satire, and the opening credits riff works beautifully with the films retro, multi-colored opening credits sequence. The soundtrack is well done too, with the likes of Chingy, David Lee Roth, Bon Iver, and The Four Tops, with Ariana Grande and Kid Cudi delivering the masterstroke; an in-universe song called “Just Look Up” that’s both beautiful, hilarious, and reminiscent of come-together songs like “Do They Know It’s Christmas”. And with all of my bitching about the stagy, overdone performances, I couldn’t help but love watching these performers flex their satire chops.
I just wish Up‘s almost two and a half hour run time had been trimmed a bit, and the characters a bit more developed. Even bombastic satire can flop if its only playing in two dimensions. As much of a tree hugger as I am, even my brain kept thinking – yeah yeah, this is an allegory for climate change. Do we need to be so heavy-handed with this? Well yeah, we do. But Up goes about it in a way that feels heavy-handed and cloying, instead of sly and thought-provoking. Watch this one if you’re an armageddon-subgenre completist, but then go re-watch Dr. Strangelove to remind yourself that satire can be an excellent, hilarious way to get a point across.
Come for: The all star cast and obvious Oscar baiting
Stay for: The way this film absolutely nails how crazy, disgusting, and clueless we humans can be. Oh, and an after-credits scene that gives our crumbling little planet some hope, or something? Definitely something.