The McRaker: Don’t Look Up Cements Adam McKay’s Status As Columnist Of American Idiocy
In 2006, when President George W. Bush was thanking his generals for “snatching defeat from the clutches of those who try to defeat us in Iraq,” Adam McKay received a surprise call from Michael Moore. McKay is then 36 years old, has just released his second film as a director, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, who had an adorable Bush character in the central role. Moore, whose anti-Bush political documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 had become a phenomenal success two years earlier, was at the height of his fame as a leftist icon.
“It was the next day Nights of Talladega open, ”McKay would remember years later. “Moore called me up and said, ‘Son of a bitch, you just made the most subversive movie in the country, and nobody knows that.’
Nights of Talladega is a seemingly childish comedy about a Bible Belt racing car driver who enjoys praying as much as he likes fighting. “Dear Lord Baby Jesus,” the stupid Bobby said in one scene, “or as our southern brethren call you, Jesus, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take the time to say thank you for my family, my two handsome, handsome, handsome and striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, or TR as we call him, and of course, my steamy wife, Carly, who is a icy fox!
Throughout the film, Ricky Bobby goes through experiences that radically change his outlook on life. He discovers that as a child he had taken as a mantra in his life something his father had said for no reason while he was taking drugs (“If you are not the first, you are the last”); he falls into depression when he loses his job to a French homosexual who has nothing but contempt for America (“What have you given to the world except George Bush, Cheerios and the Thighmaster, eh ? ”); his wife seduces his best friend and they decide to get married (“You are going to get over it, and you are going to be my best man at the wedding”, soothes the friend). All of these life-changing moments are so steeped in slapstick humor that it would be easy to ignore the insightful references and nuances while enjoying the film. Moore knew what McKay was up to; hence the phone call.
McKay has long been an unseen force in American humor. He was the editor of Saturday Night Live, the oldest comedy television show in the United States. He’s also the co-founder of the Funny or Die website, which spawned a long list of skits, memes, and counterculture gems like Between the Ferns. An avowed Democratic socialist who enjoys driving luxury cars, McKay also directed and produced the pilot episode of the acclaimed HBO drama. Succession. To his credit, the cast of characters from Succession features a villainous, cartoonish version of McKay’s favorite politician, Bernie Sanders.
In the decade and a half since Nights of TalladegaAmerica has changed in various ways, as has McKay. Almost Gone is his passively aggressive and wacky brand of comedy that characterized films like Presenter and the other guys. The new McKay is a much darker satirist who prefers to be outspoken rather than lively, and more off-putting than charming-a la The big court and Vice. But satire is a far more respected avenue than burlesque in the city of humor, so McKay is now expected to be considered a “serious” Oscar-worthy filmmaker. The big court, on the one hand, was a brilliant fourth exposure of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis that ultimately earned McKay the recognition he long deserved.
His latest, the star-studded Netflix original Do not seek, is something that only McKay could have done. A parable of the climate crisis, Do not seek is about two astronomers (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) who are on a giant media tour to warn the world of an approaching comet that will completely destroy Earth. To their shock, they discover that the US government – led by a Trump-like president (Meryl Streep) and led by her son (Jonah Hill, apparently replacing Jared Kushner) – would rather save American businesses than ordinary people.
“Part of what you do when making movies is trying to make movies that you would personally like to see,” he said in an interview with Netflix. “So I was like, ‘Can you do something about the climate crisis and still have a bunch of laughs? Fortunately, I came across this idea which seemed to be the perfect mix of the two.
Do not seek is far from perfect, however. Yes Nights of Talladega was funny, and The big court was really funny, Do not seek is only sporadically funny, and often seriously not funny. While an effective vehicle for the larger message of planetary catastrophe, the film is full of corrupt and compromised characters, cowardly and calculating, but all uninteresting. And it has none of the laid-back charm that has marked McKay’s earlier efforts, or any script-uplifting knockout performances (like Christian Bale’s turn as Dick Cheney did for Vice). Do not seek serves primarily as a tedious and scathing indictment against politicians, monopolists and journalists.
But then, only time can reveal the true utility of Do not seek. Over the years, his work has come to embody the fighting spirit of the “muckrakers” – a pejorative label attached to a group of Reform writers in the 1900s who succeeded in rooting out widespread corruption and social crises caused by large companies in a rapidly industrializing country. America. President Theodore Roosevelt, angered by the political turmoil the nosy work was causing, once quoted John Bunyan in exasperation: “In The pilgrim’s progression, the man with the mud rake is presented as the example of one whose vision is fixed on carnal rather than spiritual things. Yet he is also the type of man who consistently refuses to see all that is high, and fixes his eyes with solemn intention only on that which is base and degrading.
Roosevelt nevertheless admitted that there was dirt on the ground, that it had to be scraped off with the manure rake. He only disagreed with the muckrakers on how it should be done. He wanted them to stop and stare from the ground, and fix their gaze on higher goals.
McKay, on the other hand, prefers to happily hold your head and rub your face on things you would otherwise ignore completely. And that’s why his message – Don’t Look Upward – might work in the long run.