When Adam McKay’s new movie Don’t Look Up starts streaming on Christmas Eve, it’ll join The Big Short and Vice in what has become a series of politically charged social satires. Co-scripted with tenacious investigative journalist and former Bernie Sanders advisor David Sirota, Don’t Look Up appears to be a Dr. Strangelove-like take on short-sighted, self-serving politicians who fail the leadership test of an incoming killer comet that functions as a clear stand-in for climate change.
Each of McKay’s recent political films have been crankier and more pointed in their commentary than the last. The Big Short was drawn from a breezy Michael Lewis airport pop-economics paperback. The Dick Cheney biopic Vice was an angry polemic about decades-old tragic events. Don’t Look Up fully confronts the ongoing idiocy of our doomed present with clear-eyed, near-hopeless exasperation.
It seems like whiplash, or at least an extreme radicalization, for the guy behind lines like, “I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” Before The Big Short, McKay was the guitarist Tony Iommi to Will Ferrell’s frontman Ozzy Osbourne, creating some of the heaviest comedy riffs of all time in Anchorman, Stepbrothers and Talladega Nights.
But what seems to be a line of demarcation is really a through-line that connects McKays' early and more recent work. Not only do his serious political movies have laughs (Steve Carell’s portrayal of Donald Rumsfield is particularly inspired), but his goofy, non-political movies are often deceptively smart and full of none-too-subtle social commentary and politics.
Don’t believe me? Let’s review.
Political Theme: Workplace Sexism
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The message is hiding in plain sight. But because it was released well before the woke revolution and, honestly, because it’s hilarious, it’s easy to overlook the feminist (or feminist adjacent) message of Anchorman. Despite its mostly male cast and its universal embrace by white suburban men of a certain age, Anchorman isn’t a just a movie about dudes rocking. The rocking is in service of a point: these guys are entitled assholes in the workplace. The environment they create, though the word is never used, is toxic. The movie was inspired by an interview with a broadcast journalist from the ‘70s reminiscing about the sexism that pervaded the industry at the peak of his career. Every joke in Anchorman flows from the idea that many powerful men are monstrous gasbags remaking the world in their image.
Talladega Nights (2006)
Political Theme: George W. Bush's America is a Dangerous Buffoon
The goofy 2006 race car movie has a lot more in common with Vice than you might suspect. The cue is relatively subtle: Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby character has the same accent as Ferrell’s SNL George W. Bush impression. That’s not a coincidence. Ricky Bobby is G-Dubs and “First or last” could as easily be the slogan we preemptively declared victory in Iraq with as “Mission Accomplished.” Ricky Bobby is a hollowed-out idiot striving to please an emotionally distant father. Making Sasha Baron Cohen’s rival to Bobby a Frenchman makes a lot more sense when you remember that, two years before the film was made, French fries were renamed “Freedom fries” by half the country.
Step Brothers (2008)
Political Theme: Consumer Culture is Destroying American Men
The polemical force of Step Brothers is obscured by two things: 1) it’s very, very funny. 2) the character’s flaws, endemic to the problem McKay was trying to explore, are shared by most of the movie’s audience. The step brothers are choking on nostalgia and locked in arrested development. They’ve been told since they were 13 that the things they experienced while they were 13 would be the best things they’d experience in their lives. They believed it and it absolutely destroyed them. As adults, the world has little use for them beyond their occasional ability to buy a Star Wars t-shirt. "Step Brothers was a living cartoon when it came out, [and now] it’s literally true," McKay said in a recent interview. "When you see giant grown-ups screaming and kicking over furniture because they have to wear a mask, that’s actually more preposterous than Step Brothers.”