In 2006, George Clooney won the Academy Award for Supporting Actor for his movie Syriana. He started his speech with an attempt at self-deprecating humor about his name becoming synonymous with winning an Oscar, playing the role of Batman, and winning People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” He went on to praise Hollywood celebrities for leading the dialogue on the AIDS crisis and civil rights, and making Hattie McDaniel the first Black person to win an Oscar. He ended by expressing his pride in being as out of touch with the rest of the world as Hollywood celebrities are accused of being, because, he argued, that distance allowed Hollywood to achieve progress in areas where the world hadn't caught up.
That speech was one of the cringiest moments ever recorded. It was arrogant, smug, and condescending. It’s enough to make your soul vomit.
The speech is infamous now, in large part due to a South Park episode later that year where the kids met people who were so self-righteous that they loved the smell of their own farts, and George Clooney’s speech created a literal “smug cloud” that was so dangerous, it threatened national security. That episode captured the discomfort that many of us weren’t able to place a finger on at the time: George Clooney’s speech was an example of rich celebrities talking down to the rest of us, and disguising it as humility and progress.
Don’t Look Up is writer and director Adam McKay’s latest in a growing slate of politically focused movies, and I thought of the smug cloud before I watched it. The capital-D “Discourse” had already begun, a summary of which is fairly straightforward: Audiences thought it was fine, and critics absolutely hated it. A brief synopsis for those who need it: Two astronomers discover a comet on a trajectory to destroy the Earth, and as they try to appeal to the government, media, and general public to take the threat seriously, they’re faced with everything from skepticism and apathy to comet-denying conspiracies and government propaganda. It’s intentionally written with a sledgehammer, and is meant to hold a mirror to our collective response to the crises of today.
Some criticism of Don’t Look Up might relate to factors outside of the movie itself. Such a high concentration of Hollywood celebrities in a political, message-driven movie can be distracting, to say the least: Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, Ron Perlman, Timothée Chalamet, Ariana Grande, and more can feel like a lot, and risks landing as a smug cloud on par with Clooney’s 2006 speech, no matter how they perform. An army of A-list celebrities pointing out our societal flaws feels inherently out of touch, but it’s perhaps their union in such a politically heavy-handed Adam McKay movie that created something so uniquely grating that it can strike a nerve the way this movie has with so many people.