Written by By Yashaswini Swamynathan, CNN Singapore
A director coming off two critical and commercial failures (“Bright Lights”) — and another one that’s already box office underachiever (“The Beguiled”) — is keen to prove himself with a large-scale domestic comedy. But “Don’t Look Up” is a one-note concept that’s doomed to fail big, just like its lead actors: actress Sandra Bullock and “The Big Sick” star Julia Roberts.
The film — released across the U.S. on June 7 — is like one of those awful Lifetime TV movies that’s written with a middle-school perspective and embellished with a warped worldview. At least that’s the one portrayed in black-and-white (it gets colors in the home-video cut). It’s kind of like if the Muppets creator Jim Henson had met a layer of cancer and decided his fated conclusion was: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Scratch the surface and it’s full of very parochial cliches about the problem of today’s youth — who care about film festivals, outdoorsy nature films, animal sanctuaries, segregation in the cafeteria (in order to win over, do not forget, the increasingly spoiled Jewish first-graders), bigotry and ambition — mostly held by people whose preoccupations and values couldn’t be further from the “Me Too” moment of 2019.
This is a movie where the word “Goofball” is part of Bullock’s character’s social media bio. (Why?) About what? Bullock’s mother is essentially called a whiner, eventually becoming a martyr for alcohol abuse and single parenthood. Only as things go awry does Bullock learn that her mother’s favorite museum is self-help guru Tony Robbins.
Bullock is a soft, inoffensive, earnest character, and really it’s an improvement over the usual Hollywood formula — before she “won,” Roberts would land big movie titles like “Birds of Prey” and “Charlie’s Angels.”
But the movie was conceived during a period when young actresses were moving into the middle-aged woman demographic, like Roberts or Nicole Kidman or Jennifer Lopez. The irony that Bullock is now seen as a viable young star is undermined when she has to change that identity from a woman with baby fever to a grandma whose social graces are nonexistent.
Here is the real challenge for Roberts, who’s at 50, turning 50. At a time when Laura Dern — whose all-time-great performance in the “Wild” movie illustrated that a middle-aged woman can seem vital and feminine and sympathetic with the right kind of acting — might have been the best bet. But Roberts can’t get over her age.
There are rumors that Roberts’ family is moving from the hill country of Connecticut to Palm Springs, where we’ll presumably see some better-looking margaritas.
Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts in “Don’t Look Up.” Credit: Jason Reed
The choices made by the director, Ronny Yu, who has made several cool films — including “Red Cliff” and “S.W.A.T.” — are more wrong than right. For starters, the Thai village where Bullock’s character has to live as a wet nurse is seriously bland and nostalgic. Why she and her son have to venture on to the Thai island where her mother now lives when the initially-moving movie, directed in 1964 by Jack Napier, was set seems nonsensical.
But, for the film’s first half, there’s also an initial promise. The 1960s-set L.A. gangsters and dweeby American teens have more potential. Then Yu settles into all the tired stereotypes of the ever-present institutionalized racism of the time and decides to execute the film’s big twist with juvenile humor. To be fair, Bullock is the funniest thing in the movie. If not one of the best. But if not for her and her frequent-filler screenwriter J.F. Lawton (Michael Sheen), the movie would have been lost.