I sporadically read movie and/or television reviews. I don’t necessarily trust entertainment reviewers, but I tend to assume they get it approximately right. Maybe they don’t point to true north, but they wave in a general northish direction. The reviews of Don’t Look Up were harsh; I saw it described as glib, as disastrous, as unamusing, as obvious and without subtlety, as over-the-top, as trivializing an actual social problem, as cynical and mocking. Reviewers said Don’t Look Up failed both as satire and as comedy.
But sometimes all I want is mindless, distracting entertainment–something glib and trivial and obvious. Besides, there were a lot of really fine actors in it, so how bad could it be?
I won’t say Don’t Look Up is a great movie; it’s not. But it’s not at all what the reviewers claimed it was. It’s not mindless entertainment; it’s not glib or trivializing or without subtlety. It’s a damned fine movie. It IS over-the-top, but considering the last few years, it’s only over the top by inches.
With only the tiniest possible SPOILER, I’m going to tell you what the movie is about. I’m not going to relate the entire plot; I’m only going to reveal one plot element (which you probably already know). But I’m going to describe what I think is the pivotal scene. It takes place fairly early in the film, and it establishes the theme on which the movie depends.
Three people–a grad student who discovers a comet heading directly toward earth, the professor who oversees her research, and a government official who heads some obscure agency devoted to protecting Earth from comets and/or other space stuff–are at the White House with a high-ranking military escort. They’re there to warn the president of the impending extinction level event. POTUS is busy doing political bullshit, so they’re left idling in a hallway. The escort leaves briefly and returns with bottled water and some snacks. He complains about how expensive the snacks were. The others reimburse him–US$20. He keeps the change. Later, the grad student (played by Jennifer Lawrence with unfortunate hair) discovers the snacks and water were free. Periodically through the rest of the film, she talks about how astonished she was that this guy screwed them for a few bucks when they were at the White House trying to warn humanity that all life on the planet is likely going to be extinguished. She just can’t understand people who act that way.
And that’s the movie. Good, decent people trying to do what’s right, trying to do what’s best for everybody, trying to deal with a system designed for–and occupied by–people primarily concerned with themselves and their own gain, people who are willing to lie, mislead, and manipulate others to achieve their short term goals. It’s not just that they have incompatible value systems; it’s that they don’t even share the same definition of values.
It’s a comedy. Sort of. It’s satire. Sort of. Actually, I’m damned if I know what genre it falls into. It’s a critique of the politico-corporate culture we live in, where maximizing profits and shareholder value have priority over human concerns. It’s a critique of the social media driven culture in which celebrity is valued over knowledge and manipulated opinion trumps science. All of that sounds very dull, doesn’t it; but this is not a dull movie.
In the end, I found Don’t Look Up to be weirdly hopeful. It suggests that trying to do good, trying to do the right thing, is in itself a worthy goal, even if you don’t believe you can succeed. It suggests a person’s sincere attempt to do what’s right confers a sort of grace on the person. I like to think that’s true.
Don’t Look Up is worth watching.
EDITORIAL NOTE: By the way, this is one of the few films in which scientists are depicted as normal people who are simply devoted to science. Nerdy, perhaps, but ordinary.
Also? The cast includes Melanie Lynskey, who has a brilliantly quiet career playing strong, soft-spoken women; she deserves a lot more attention than she gets. It’s a small role, but she’s perfect in it. She knows how to throw a pill bottle and make it sting.
Sometimes you have to say it like it’s three separate words. Not motherfucker, but muh thur fucker. Because it’s that bad. I’m talking about Kevin McCarthy here. We all know McCarthy is a sniveling coward entirely lacking in integrity, a pathetic soulless wretch with the moral fortitude of a runny blancmange. But even so, his conversation with Chris Wallace this morning was an embarrassing, humiliating display of spinelessness.
Wallace asked McCarthy about a phone call he’d made to Comrade Trump while the January 6th insurrection was in full swing. He asked Trump to call off the rioters, to help stop the violence. During the impeachment hearing–wait, sorry, I mean Trump’s second impeachment hearing–a GOP member of Congress testified under oath that McCarthy had told her Trump responded to his request for help by saying, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” Wallace asked if that was in fact what Trump said.
McCarthy tried to dodge the question, but didn’t deny it. First he said Trump ended the call by saying he’d put something out to ‘stop’ the rioting. Asked again, he refused to directly answer the question by saying, “My conversations with the president are my conversations with the president.” Which, let’s face it, is pretty much an admission that Trump said exactly that.
But let’s look at the transcript of the video Trump DID eventually release.
I know your pain, I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it, especially the other side.
But you have to go home now. We have to have peace. We have to have law and order. We have to respect our great people in law and order. We don’t want anybody hurt.
It’s a very tough period of time. There’s never been a time like this where such a thing happened where they could take it away from all of us — from me, from you, from our country. This was a fraudulent election…
…but we can’t play into the hands of these people. We have to have peace. So go home. We love you.
You’re very special.
You’ve seen what happens. You see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel.
But go home, and go home in peace.
In his interview with Wallace, McCarthy also said this: “I engaged in the idea of making sure we could stop what was going on inside the Capitol at that moment in time and the president said he would help.”
For once, I’m willing to take McCarthy at his word. I believe Comrade Trump DID want to help “stop what was going on inside the Capitol at that moment in time.” I believe that because what was going on in the Capitol at that moment in time was a GOP attempt to stop the Electoral College from confirming that Joe Biden had won the election. It was an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer or power–an attempt made violently by the insurrectionists and bureaucratically by Republican members of Congress. They both had the same goal in mind.
McCarthy says Trump wanted to stop what was going on inside the Capitol. And he tried.
I like television. I don’t watch a lot of it, but I like it. I watch probably a couple of hours of television a day. Wait, not true. I usually watch the local news and the network news. That’s an hour right there. Then I’ll watch an episode of some show over a meal. Later I’ll usually watch an episode of a different show. So let’s say a couple of hours of entertainment television, and a hour of news.
With so many streaming services available, there’s always something to watch. That said, I don’t generally watch US network television shows. Not because of any anti-American bias, but because they all seem too slick and indistinguishable. Most of the actors–especially the women actors–tend to look like models rather than real people. The storylines often feel familiar and predictable. They don’t require anything from the viewer but passive engagement.
Since I complain about them, somebody asked me what I’d like to see US television production companies release. And because I’d rather think about that than what I’m supposed to be doing, I came up with three ideas for television shows I’d watch. I was just amusing myself, of course, and being a bit ridiculous–but I think I’d actually watch television shows like this.
Here we go:
Welcome to Ballachulish: Two assassins–one an official CIA wetwork specialist on a gov’t pension, one a Belgian freelancer who has made enough money to get out of the game–coincidentally choose to retire to the same small out-of-the-way village in Scotland. Although they each remain suspicious that the other is there to kill them, they semi-bond together as they interact with the quirky locals–an irascible veterinarian, a lesbian couple who operate a pub/B&B, an irascible postmaster, the local constable (a wanna-be spy novelist), an irascible shopkeeper, the local laird and his extended family, an irascible Korean owner of a Mexican restaurant, a standard attractive single woman school teacher, an irascible ironmonger/blacksmith/interior designer.
The Bookstore: A small, dusty used bookstore in Brooklyn that somehow attracts all sorts of customers–lawyers, immigrant taxi drivers, soccer moms, art students, police officers, actor/waiters, college professors, professional dancers, auto mechanics, bicycle messengers, etc. Occasionally some ask the bookseller for a recommendation. Bookseller encourages them to browse, take their time, find a book themselves. If they insist on a recommendation the bookseller will agree, saying “I’ll recommend a book for you just this once. One time, and that’s it. And all sales are final. Are you sure you want me to recommend a book?” If they still insist, the bookseller will charge them US$14.75 in advance, study their face for a while, then say “I know exactly what you’re looking for” and send them to a back room.
As they pass through the door, they enter a story. Might be a romance, might be a murder mystery, might be a heist story, might be a pirate story, might be science fiction or fantasy, might be a story set in a Russian gulag or a French Foreign Legion post in north Africa–but it’s rarely what the customer thinks they want. Most have happy–or at least satisfactory–endings. Some don’t. The story resolves, the customer finds themselves back in the bookstore.
Ol’ Man River: Guy (or woman, doesn’t matter–let’s say a woman, what the hell) wins the lottery. She leaves her old life behind (whatever that includes). Buys a houseboat. Travels up and down the Mississippi River mostly by herself. Stuff happens. She meets people, she has visits from family and friends, she deals with animals and boat problems and bad weather, she stops at various river towns, she learns some local history, she changes in ways she doesn’t expect. Lots of pretty scenery.
I considered suggesting a series in which two retired assassins buy a houseboat and travel up and down the Mississippi stopping at bookstores in river towns, but that seemed a bit over the top.
Yesterday I came across a news item…wait, make that a ‘news’ item. I mean, there’s news, which is information important to me, and there’s ‘news’, which is information I might find momentarily interesting. Like, say, ‘sports news’ or ‘religious news’ or, in this case, ‘entertainment news’.
Yesterday I came across a ‘news’ item which informed me that the protagonist in a BBC/PBS show called (and I am not making this up) Miss Scarlet and the Duke was patterned after Miss Elizabeth Bennett (of Pride and Prejudice, I shouldn’t have to tell you that). You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire Miss Bennett. I’ve always been of the opinion that her keen observational skills coupled with her lively wit and plucky nature would make her an excellent detective.
So, of course, I determined to watch the show. Last night I watched the first episode. Let me just say this: I know Miss Elizabeth Bennett. Miss Bennett is a friend of mine. Miss Eliza Scarlet is no Miss Elizabeth Bennett.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The differences between the two characters are actually important to the narrative. Miss Bennett, of course, is a gentleman’s daughter; Miss Scarlet is the daughter of a police detective. In addition, Miss Bennett is the product of the Regency Era, whereas Miss Scarlet is firmly planted in the Victorian. Finally, the pace of Miss Bennett’s life is determined by the rhythms of a rural and village existence; Miss Scarlet lives in London. Those differences–in social class, in social status, in societal change over time, and in environment–radically expand the parameters of Miss Scarlet as a character.
Being a police detective’s daughter in Victorian London allows the character of Miss Scarlet access to most of the common tropes of the modern criminal investigation show. This is both unfortunate and very convenient. It’s convenient in that it makes the nature of the show familiar to the viewer; it’s unfortunate since the viewer knows pretty much what to expect.
And the first episode of Miss Scarlet and the Duke meets that expectation. There’s nothing new, nothing original, nothing surprising. Basically we have a 21st century woman protagonist set in 19th century London, with a nod toward a more historically restrictive patriarchal system. In other words, we have a generically plucky woman detective who has to 1) strive to be taken seriously, 2) overcome obstacles presented by the patriarchy, 3) defy gender norms, but only to a certain degree, and 4) establish her independence.
That said, I think we can all agree that you can’t judge a television series on the basis of the first episode. Or even the second or third. But you can, I think, get some idea of the nature of the show. And Miss Scarlet and the Duke gives every impression of being…pleasant. It wasn’t exciting, it wasn’t intriguing, it wasn’t compelling, it wasn’t even particularly interesting. It was a mildly entertaining diversion that doesn’t require much on the part of the viewer. It was…pleasant.
That’s not a criticism; there’s a need for mildly entertaining diversions, especially during a pandemic. So let’s take a look at that first episode.
WARNING — ENGAGE SPOILER ALERT SYSTEM. SPOILERS FOLLOW. STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS.
Because it’s the first episode, a certain amount of narrative has to be spent introducing the characters. It opens with Eliza being led by a street urchin to an unsavory part of London. She’s paying the kid to lead her to a dead body. Not any particularly dead body. Just a random dead person. Why? So she can…investigate something? The body appears to be that of a woman we assume to be a one-eyed prostitute. She is, in fact, one-eyed and a prostitute. She is not, however, dead. Only drunk.
As a scene, it makes absolutely no sense–unless Eliza has some sort of necro-curious fetish, which doesn’t seem likely from PBS. The point is to show she’s eager to prove herself to her father, a retired police detective turned private investigator. Eager, but inexperienced. And not very competent. Not only does she not get a dead body, she doesn’t get her money back from the urchin.
Her father would be horrified, but he doesn’t learn of the encounter because he’s nowhere to be found (ooh, suspense). He’s not at his office, and his police protégé (Chief Inspector William ‘Duke’ Wellington) hasn’t seen him. Eliza assumes he’s either working a case or drunk. He’s not. He’s dead.
Eliza returns home to find a stranger–a doctor, no less– and her dead father in the drawing room. This stranger found her father dead and apparently brought his body home. I suspect in a later episode we’ll learn there’s something odd about her father’s death (because that’s how the Mystery Story Universe works). Possibly the doctor is involved (the Mystery Story Universe is predictable).
Before she can even begin to mourn, Eliza encounters a prospective client looking for her father. Needing the money, she lies to him, telling him her father will accept the case. This is where the actual plot begins. Oh lawdy, the plot. Let’s dispense with the plot as quickly as possible; it’s convoluted, and the least interesting thing about the first episode.
The client, a man dying of some undisclosed illness, is looking for his estranged niece, Tilly, his last living relative. She married unwisely and was cast off by the family. Now that he’s dying and has an estate to dispose of, he wants to find her again. Eliza finds Tilly working as the human target for a knife-throwing act in an unsavory dance hall in Soho. Tilly confesses her uncle was right–her husband, a once-widowed actor, was only interested in her uncle’s fortune. When he learned she was disowned, he disappeared. She’s willing to meet and reconcile with her dying uncle.
Case closed! No, of course not. The dying uncle turns out to be–and, again, I’m not making this up–Tilly’s husband in a fake beard. He’d learned of the uncle’s death, and as her husband in Victorian England, he basically has control of the estate she inherited. He has the estate, but he has no need of a wife. And yet he decides FOR REASONS that he must find her. Does he return to Soho where he left her? No. Does he look for her? No. Instead, he puts on a disguise and hires somebody to find her. Does that make any sense? No. Doesn’t matter. When Eliza brings Tilly and her husband together, he removes his disguise, calls in a pair of ruffians, and has Ivy hauled off to be committed. Which allows him to control the estate he’s already controlling. I know, I know…just go along with this.
The husband pays Eliza her fee. She feels awful (girls have all these emotions), so she decides FOR REASONS to investigate the husband’s first marriage. She discovers his first wife wasn’t actually dead (gasp)! This makes him a bigamist. Eliza threatens him with arrest, he threatens to strangle her, but she’s had a maid lace his tea with laudanum, knocking him out. She then calls her friend Chief Inspector Duke Wellington, who arrests the husband and chides Eliza for being a girl doing police work. Why didn’t Eliza simply notify Duke of the husband’s crime and let the police arrest him, avoiding the need to 1) risk her life and 2) spike the man’s tea with drugs? REASONS, that’s why.
Tilly is released from wherever she was committed to and everybody is happy, except the Duke who insists Eliza shouldn’t investigate anything because she’s a girl. The end.
This sounds painfully bad…and it would be, if you were only interested in the plot. Or in the characters. But Miss Scarlet and the Duke is meant to be a confection. It’s a teacake, not a meal. It’s a show about Miss Scarlet’s costumes, and men with precise beards wearing bowler hats and long coats. It’s about stage sets depicting Victorian London, the drawing rooms, the taverns, the bawdy houses. It’s not meant to make you think.
Oh, Miss Scarlet takes on the patriarchy in a variety of non-threatening ways. She mocks the men for being protective and condescending, she out-thinks them, she finds a way around whatever attempts they make to keep her docile and biddable. The viewer understands that the patriarchy is awful, but isn’t it cute and clever how Eliza gets around it?
Only two scenes were potentially interesting, potentially dramatic. Eliza, in her search for Tilly, encounters Moses–the black man who ‘protects’ the women who work in the dance hall. There’s something awkward about the only person of color in the show being a criminal. But Eliza wants information about Tilly, Moses wants a bribe; she pays the bribe, he takes her coin purse. When he refuses to return the purse, Eliza flirts with him (Miss Elizabeth Bennett would have vapors). When Moses responds, Eliza quickly handcuffs him to a rail (a tangent: ratchet cuffs weren’t invented until the early 20th century). She then threatens to burn him alive unless he 1) returns the money and 2) tells her where to find Tilly.
The second scene was momentarily very distressing. Eliza is arrested during a raid on the dance hall where Tilly is employed. Three men take her by force to a room with an exam table, and are apparently about to ‘inspect’ her to see if she has a venereal disease. For a brief moment, there was nothing amusing or sugary about the show. Eliza quickly defuses the situation by claiming to be the preferred prostitute of Chief Inspector Wellington, who then rescues her. What was potentially traumatic and horrifying becomes somewhat comedic. Eliza is completely unfazed by that sexual assault.
Is Miss Scarlet and the Duke a good show? Not by most PBS standards. Is it worth watching? It’s a nice diversion. I’ll watch the next episode, if only for the set design and the costumes. Miss Scarlet knows how to wear a hat.