Toward a Unified Theory of Adam McKay

In Netflix’s star-studded satire Don’t Look Up, there’s a clock ticking down to the end of the world, courtesy of an approaching comet big enough to destroy Earth. But even amid such existential stakes, a group of small-town skaters can’t help but assume that the wealthy elite are still two steps ahead. The world might be ending, but the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent will find a way to escape certain doom, even if it means leaving Earth behind in a spaceship. “You guys, the truth is way more depressing,” PhD candidate Kate Dibiasky (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who originally discovered the fateful comet, tells them. “They’re not even smart enough to be as evil as you’re giving them credit for.”

Indeed, from the halls of the Oval Office to a conference room with a disarming tech mogul, Don’t Look Up paints a grim portrait of insatiable greed and boundless stupidity: a climate change allegory that feels even more resonant in light of the ongoing pandemic. Given its politically relevant subject matter and ridiculously stacked cast—J-Law is joined by [deep breath] Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Cate Blanchett, Mark Rylance, Timothée Chalamet, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Melanie Lynskey, Michael Chiklis, Scott Mescudi, and Ariana Grande—Don’t Look Up is perfectly engineered to generate award-season buzz. But while Don’t Look Up has all the hallmarks of typical Oscar bait, the film is also an unmistakable product of writer-director Adam McKay, one of Hollywood’s foremost authorities on modern American idiocy.

On the surface, it appears that McKay has made a sharp pivot from his slapstick comedy roots with his past three movies—The Big Short, Vice, and Don’t Look Up—which trade in (some) laughs in favor of discernible rage against corrupt financial institutions and crooked politicians. But it doesn’t take much digging to find a through line between the high-minded projects that landed McKay on the Academy’s radar and the wacky Will Ferrell collaborations that put him on the map in the first place.

After McKay spent six years as a writer on Saturday Night Live from 1995 to 2001, during which he overlapped with Ferrell, the two teamed up on the big screen for 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. McKay’s directorial debut follows hotshot San Diego news anchor Ron Burgundy (Ferrell), who clashes with whip-smart newcomer Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) from the moment he eyes her at a party and she rebuffs his formerly foolproof sexual advances. (“I don’t usually do this, but I felt compelled to tell you something: You have an absolutely breathtaking heinie,” Ron tells her.) Despite that terrible first impression, it’s evident that Ron and Veronica have the hots for each other. But instead of another man getting in the way of their relationship, it’s Ron’s fragile ego and sense of masculine superiority that threaten to tear them apart. While Anchorman’s main targets are sexism and toxic masculinity in the form of ’70s-era caricatures, the movie isn’t completely devoid of McKay’s political inclinations. At the end of the film, it’s revealed that scene-stealing weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), who at one point says that a doctor would eventually diagnose him as “mentally retarded,” becomes a top adviser for George W. Bush. It’s not exactly a subtle takedown.

McKay would make Bush a bigger focal point in his two follow-ups, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers, which along with Anchorman complete what he jokingly calls the Mediocre White Man trilogy. Talladega Nights focuses on nothing less than the crown jewel of red state entertainment, NASCAR, using a cocky star driver named Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) as a window into the meaningless pursuits of American exceptionalism. There is perhaps nothing more depressingly emblematic of that mindset than Ricky’s stupefying motto—“If you ain’t first, you’re last”—or the fact that openly gay French racer Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen) channels irrational fears because he’s, well, a gay European who starts dominating an unabashedly American sport. (What may be equally horrifying: Girard’s car is sponsored by Perrier instead of, say, Wonder Bread.)

Step Brothers, meanwhile, has a similarly caustic view of white American males in crisis and just how easy it is for them to fail upward. After spending most of the movie either at each other’s throats or disastrously attempting to construct bunk beds as best friends, all it takes is one successful Catalina Wine Mixer™ for stepbrothers Brennan (Ferrell) and Dale (John C. Reilly) to undo decades of arrested development and be seen as winners in their parents’ eyes. (Brennan and Dale create an entertainment company that hosts karaoke events called Prestige Worldwide, which feels like the spiritual cousin of Parks and Recreation’s Entertainment 720.) It’s only fitting, then, that Step Brothers opens with an oft-derided, completely nonsensical quote from Bush himself: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”

If Step Brothers served as the culmination of McKay’s Mediocre White Man trilogy, then his underrated buddy-cop spoof The Other Guys smartly bridged the gap between the director’s slapstick origins and his current wave of prestige projects. The Other Guys opens with Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson playing a pair of trigger-happy detectives—the ones always capable of death-defying heroics in these types of action movies—leaping off a building toward an early retirement. (“Aim for the bushes” has taken up permanent residence in my brain.) In their stead, the film follows unheralded detectives Allen Gamble (Ferrell) and Terry Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), whose seemingly minor investigation of a scaffolding permit unfurls into a larger criminal conspiracy. Whereas most buddy-cop movies would (a) give Jackson and Johnson invincible plot armor, and (b) have them take down a dangerous cartel, The Other Guys sees the unassuming Gamble and Hoitz tackle white-collar criminals pulling a Ponzi scheme that exploits the NYPD’s pension fund. The mastermind of the operation, Sir David Ershon (Steve Coogan), was inspired by Bernie Madoff, and if McKay’s resentment for this kind of financial embezzlement wasn’t obvious enough, the film’s end credits feature a series of graphics breaking down how a Ponzi scheme works.

While McKay would go on to make an Anchorman sequel in 2013 that mostly skewered the 24-hour cable news cycle, The Others Guys paved the way for the filmmaker to strip away some of the comedic elements of his work to focus more transparently on social issues—in part because he felt that the real message of the movie flew over viewers’ heads. “I was trying to make the entire movie an allegory for the financial crisis, then [The Other Guys] came out and no one cared,” McKay told Little White Lies in 2020.

There was no mistaking the intent of The Big Short, McKay’s buzzy adaptation of Michael Lewis’s bestselling book of the same name, which reveals how a housing bubble triggered the 2008 financial crisis. McKay’s attachment to the project originally raised some eyebrows, but given that he was capable of making crowd-pleasing comedies with clever—if sometimes overlooked—political messaging, he was the ideal filmmaker to bring the dry yet consequential material to life on the big screen. As Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett, the Deutsche Bank executive who also serves as the movie’s narrator, tells the audience: “Wall Street loves to use confusing terms to make you think only they can do what they do. Or, even better, for you just to leave them the fuck alone.”

In The Big Short, McKay makes the unique choice to clarify complex financial concepts—subprime loans, tranches, mortgage-backed securities—by enlisting A-listers like Margot Robbie (in a bathtub) and Selena Gomez in fourth-wall-breaking cameos. But the biggest surprise of The Big Short could be how well it stands as a straight-up drama. In the moments when the film isn’t trying to be showy and merely follows the lead-up to the housing market crash, the director proves to be a steady hand—the final result is something between a typical Adam McKay comedy and an extremely well-funded Vox explainer video. The Big Short netted McKay an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2016, solidifying his status as a prestige filmmaker and setting the stage for the next phase of his career.

But if condensing the biggest financial crisis of a generation into a 130-minute movie seemed like an ambitious undertaking, it still paled in comparison to the subject of McKay’s next project: Dick Cheney. Aside from being a notoriously powerful and secretive vice president, Cheney is someone whose ugly stain on American history didn’t feel like the right fit for McKay’s sensibilities. Still, off the heels of McKay’s Oscar win, Vice arrived in 2018 with significant fanfare, further buoyed by Christian Bale’s shocking transformation into the former veep and Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of a doofy, note-perfect Bush.

But the award-season buzz, including a Best Picture nomination, flatters Vice: The film was the first genuine misfire of McKay’s career. It’s grimly impressive how one politician’s legacy can prove to be even more unwieldy than an entire recession, but the extent to which Cheney’s life overwhelmed the filmmaker is perhaps best embodied by the fact that the original cut includes a musical number—a needless flourish in a movie that already had too many of them. (And let’s not forget about Bale and Amy Adams performing Shakespearean dialogue in bed, or the mid-credits scene of a focus group discussing the movie.) McKay’s fundamental flaw with Vice isn’t just Doing the Absolute Most, but that it’s all in service of a simplistic idea: that all Cheney cared about was power. McKay might be the most acute filmmaker of his generation at exposing American idiocy, but for all of Cheney’s sins, being stupid or single-minded isn’t one of them. (If he gave the Vice treatment to Bush, with Cheney lurking in the shadows, maybe we’d be on to something.)

Thankfully, in the same year that Vice came out, McKay would find a much better match for his prestige ambitions on the small screen by directing the pilot of HBO’s Succession. It’s generally accepted that Succession takes a few episodes to hit its stride, but McKay’s influence on the series shouldn’t be disregarded, either. Television pilots—and the reason that big-name directors are sometimes attached to them—help establish a visual language for the show, and McKay’s imprint is no exception. One of the signature features of the series is that it frequently employs snap zooms, with handheld cameras pushing closer to someone’s face when they react to something. It’s a technique most commonly associated with sitcoms like The Office, and an early tell that Succession is in on the joke. “I thought it was interesting to be in the world of these rich people, as they’re quite vivid and Dallas-y, but to mix that with the verite approach of that kind of—it’s not quite docudrama what we do, but there’s a connecting tissue between how McKay shot the pilot and how we shot the season,” Succession showrunner Jesse Armstrong told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019.

But just as pilot directors help a show hone its visual template, it’s also fairly common for them to leave the series after. (As Damon Lindelof once colorfully explained: “It’s sort of the equivalent of me saying that I will impregnate you, and our child will have a lot of my DNA in it, but then I have no interest whatsoever in raising the child.”) McKay, who remains an executive producer on the series, has yet to direct another episode of Succession. But while it’s not completely out of the question that he’d return to the show, he’s once again turned his focus to the big screen—and to the end of the world.

Don’t Look Up channels a lot of familiar anxieties about an increasingly warming planet, replacing the comparatively subtle effects of man-made climate change over decades with a miles-wide comet on a direct collision course to Earth. It’s a big movie in every sense of the word, and Netflix has positioned it for maximum award-season attention, making it 2021’s Roma, The Irishman, or Mank. Considering those films were the passion projects of Alfonso Cuarón, Martin Scorsese, and David Fincher, respectively, McKay is in really good company. But getting Netflix’s resources behind a film in which Meryl Streep gets to play a MAGA-inspired POTUS is only half the battle.

On the one hand, it’s understandable that McKay would want to corral a bunch of A-listers for Don’t Look Up. But the film’s underlying message that humanity is carelessly barreling toward its own extinction and that we should be paying more attention reeks not only of self-importance—yeah, uh, we know?—but also of a lack of self-awareness. Don’t Look Up repeatedly pokes fun at the idea of celebrities having a larger platform to address serious issues than the voices that actually matter—with a helpful assist from Ariana Grande and Scott Mescudi playing exaggerated versions of themselves—but the star-studded film is just as guilty of that vain impulse. Even if DiCaprio posts nonstop about the effects climate change has on the whale population, his and Streep’s and Lawrence’s involvement practically turns Don’t Look Up into a feature-length version of the Gal Gadot–led “Imagine” video wrapped around a climate change allegory.

In spite of its flaws, Don’t Look Up still manages moments of real poignancy—none more affecting than a last supper sequence at the end of the film as the comet approaches. The jokes and overbearing smugness take a backseat to characters finding comfort in being surrounded by loved ones and appreciating the beauty of everyday things—and the natural wonders of our planet—that humanity takes for granted until, well, it’s too late. It’s a beautiful sentiment that packs an emotional wallop … which is then immediately undercut by a goofy, lowbrow post-credits scene that reveals that Streep’s president has a tramp stamp.

Therein lies the conflict of Adam McKay as a prestigious filmmaker: If the jokes don’t land—and sometimes even when they do—they can undermine the dramatic resonance of the material. It’s a balancing act that McKay nailed in The Big Short and the Succession pilot, but Vice and Don’t Look Up are ultimately big swings—and big misses.

The good news is that, while McKay’s relationship with Ferrell has fractured, his next project feels like a crossover between the glory days of the director’s aughts comedies and his recent output. There’s only a trailer to go off of, but Winning Time, HBO’s upcoming series about the Showtime Lakers era, has the potential to be a bounceback. The cast is stacked, the ridiculous stories of these Lakers teams hardly need to be embellished, and the larger-than-life personas of star athletes (and egotistical team owners) seem like the perfect muses for McKay’s instincts. The past few years aren’t the highlight of McKay’s career, but with an Oscar and a collection of iconic comedies on his résumé, there’s no reason to doubt that the auteur is capable of generating another crowd-pleasing hit. Despite what Ricky Bobby might believe, if Adam McKay ain’t first, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s last.

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