Here is Part 1 in our "Make The Case" series leading up to the Oscars! All week we will be expostulating how and why each of the ten Best Picture nominees have a chance at winning the top prize at the 94th Academy Awards -- no matter how likely or unlikely their chances may be. Stay tuned for our Oscars Preview next week as we gear up for the ceremony on Sunday, March 27th. As always, be aware that there will be spoilers aplenty.
Just a few months ago, Film & Froth's own Isaac P. Ale was less than impressed by Don't Look Up in his review of Adam McKay's most recent directorial feature, which was purchased by Netflix and debuted back in December. His grievances included the film's bloated runtime, nauseous editing, and shotgun approach to satirical scrutiny. After my own viewing, I shared in his malaise. What could've been a bitingly bitter but cathartically cleansing disaster parable felt instead like a tactless, thinly-veiled guilt trip. Despite the abundance of A-list talent involved, the promise on the page just doesn't materialize, and the overall execution is overwhelmingly underwhelming. McKay, who can emulsify humor with drama as well as anyone working in the film industry today, loses his touch here and misconstrues pointed absurdity with listless punditry. When every twist and turn is this heavy-handed and over-played, the end result is lackluster and feels watered down. Maybe there's just too much to tackle here or maybe I'm just misreading his intent (calibrating jokes within this kind of tonal context is not easily done). Sharper screenwriting and more fully-realized thematic configuration might've lifted this higher in my estimation -- instead, this half-baked rendering of a Network-esque metacommentary feels more self-aggrandizing than introspective.
Hopefully, it isn't too late to mention that while it has been divisive amongst audiences and critics alike, Don't Look Up has been incredibly successful in some regard. Not only is it currently the second-most 'watched' film that Netflix has released to date (allegedly) with 360 million hours watched in its first 28 days (whoazers), but it's also received a smattering of accolades, including inclusion on the American Film Institute's and National Board of Review's Top 10 Films of 2021 lists. More importantly, and for the sake of this write up, it is in contention for several Academy Awards including:
Yeah... you heard me right. Best Picture. Best friggin' Picture. Let's unpack what makes Don't Look Up an interesting contender at this year's Oscars in the eyes of the Academy voters and try to unpack its chances of winning (shudders vigorously while chugging a beer in the hopes that this doesn't happen).
Let's start with the obvious: the Academy loves to invite stars to their big night, and no film that came out in 2021 contained more star power than Don't Look Up: Leonardo diCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep have previously won or been nominated for an Oscar, and that just skims the surface of recognizable names and faces who showed up for this movie. Ariana Grande and Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi, show up to sing -- Sarah Silverman and Chris Evans show up just to show up. Nicholas Britell (of Succession fame) wrote the score, Bon Iver wrote the song of the closing credits, and Linus Sandgren, who is quietly becoming one of the most reliable cinematographers working today, was the principal photographer (he previously won in 2017 for La La Land). Recognizing and awarding the most star-studded movie of 2021 (that also happens to be one of the most seen movies in the history of Netflix) kind of makes sense, does it not?
Not only that, but this was one of the most controversial films of the year. The subject matter and discourse alone are inherently political and have garnered a spot at the forefront of our cultural awareness. As the world seeminlgy inches closer to doomsday scenarios at every crossroads, this film certainly has a lot of thoughts about where we're headed and what it might take to survive. Though the subtext is hardly belows the surface, McKay ensured enough wiggle room to talk about our existential gloom between the lines. Maybe Academy voters will feel compelled recognize Don't Look Up seemingly bold and lofty objective -- to challenge and scare viewers (while sprinkling in some jokes to help the medicine go down a little easier). It's not subtle nudging, but it may prove to be effective.
And then there's McKay, who wrote and directed. This is his ninth directorial feature -- the third of which that has been nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Picture (including The Big Short and Vice). At this point, he is a proven Oscar-commodity, a comedically-minded auteur who is multi-talented and can manage big productions with high profile performers. Though he has won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2016 for The Big Short, he has yet to win Best Picture. As I laid out before, I don't think this film holds a candle to the other nominees in consideration (or compared to his previous works), but the possibility of awarding McKay for an issue-oriented film with a lot of star power that was seen by a ton of people and got a lot of people talking could be a tantilizing option for some Academy voters. Will there be enough to swing this in McKay's favor? Stranger things have happened before, and though it seems unlikely, I wouldn't be shocked if Don't Look Up came in and snagged the top prize. Wait, yes I would.