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Adam McKay's signature style is spreading. But one of him is enough

Quincy Isaiah and DeVaughn Nixon in <em>Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.</em>
Warrick Page/HBO
Quincy Isaiah and DeVaughn Nixon in <em>Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.</em>

Lots of people first encountered Adam McKay's signature style in The Big Short, his 2015 Oscar-nominated movie about the 2008 financial crisis, based on Michael Lewis' book. It involves a kind of jokey, meta, look-at-the-camera way of explaining things that are perceived to be complicated. Sometimes, it points knowingly at what it's doing, as The Big Short did with the famous line "Here's Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain."

In Vice, which came out in 2018, McKay uses little narrated montages to fill in information about characters, and he throws big captions up on the screen. The style comes back in Don't Look Up when he does things like flash words on the screen to tell you that yes, "The Planetary Defense Coordination Office is a real place." It's McKay's thing, for lack of a better word, and you either dig it or you do not dig it, but he does it.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in <em>Don't Look Up. </em>
/ Niko Tavernise/Netflix
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Niko Tavernise/Netflix
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in <em>Don't Look Up. </em>

It really goes into overdrive in the upcoming Winning Time, HBO's limited series about the Lakers dynasty that McKay executive produced, and of which he directed the first episode. That first episode has your fourth-wall breaking, your explanations to the camera, your freeze-frames, your different film stocks, your big captions — it has a ton of this. A lot of this. So, so much of this. And it continues throughout the series. And again, either this is your thing, or it is not your thing.

I was more concerned, however, to see these same tics all over Showtime's series Super Pumped, which is about (former) Uber head Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Adam McKay didn't make Super Pumped, but boy, would you ever think he did. Less than three minutes into the first episode, the conversation about a new "safe rides fee" (the Uber surcharge that was added in 2014 ostensibly to make rides safer) stops and the scene freezes while a narrator — who would be doing an unnecessarily broad Quentin Tarantino impression except that he is, of all people, Quentin actual Tarantino — says: "Let me English this s**t up for those of you too trusting of a smiling face to get the actual f***ing drift." The phrase "SAFE RIDES FEE" is thrown on the screen accompanied by a loud "THUMP THUMP THUMP" as each word lands. A couple of minutes later — mere minutes! — Kalanick introduces the character played by Kyle Chandler as a "shot caller" and a "baller," and yes, the screen shows his picture while displaying the words "shot caller" and "baller."

This is all before the 5:30 mark.

Now look: As I said, Adam McKay has a thing that he does, and some people really like it, and it can be funny, and it's certainly stylish. But in excess, it can tip toward the obnoxious, it can flirt with the smug, and particularly if you're talking about a guy like Kalanick, I'm not sure making the whole thing more obnoxious or more smug is really the way to go. I think McKay's influence as someone who tries to dig into unsavory characters and weird moments in history with this kind of detached hard stare will certainly continue — he's on tap to make a movie about Theranos, starring Jennifer Lawrence, for Apple. And in general, I don't think we're anywhere near the end of the boom in television and film about hustlers and scammers and plain old eager operators.

But everybody does not have to use the same style, and that style — which can be charming when used to talk about Magic Johnson and NBA defenses, isn't the best or the most palatable way to talk about guys who already seem kinda ... puffed-up. Honestly, it feels like Kalanick (as portrayed in this series) would embrace being a character in an Adam McKay series. Or, let's say, a McKay-esque series. How he comes off when these methods are used is, I think, how he sees himself. Bad-ass! No holds barred! Comin' at you hot! Life narrated by Quentin Tarantino! BALLER!

And honestly, if you're eager for the McKay style to be applied to your life, it's probably better if you don't get your wish.


This first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter so you don't miss the next one.

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