Review: 'Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World' is media satire at its most darkly funny

In Radu Jude’s latest satire, the bracing “Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World,” the Romanian writer-director assaults the viewer with many of modern life’s indignities: gridlocked traffic, rampant misogyny, economic inequality, corporate exploitation, the far-right trolls on social media. But perhaps the most insidious offense is the ringtone that repeatedly greets our unhappy hero as she schleps around Bucharest in her car for work. Numbingly cheery and maddeningly invasive, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” blares each time her demanding bosses are looking for her. People have been driven to murder for less.

Although no one dies in “Do Not Expect,” the movie does chronicle the soul-killing story of the woman inside that automobile, Angela (Ilinca Manolache), a production assistant who wakes up before 6 a.m. to begin another long, grueling day. She wears a sparkly dress, but that’s the only aspect of her demeanor that twinkles as she carries out her assignment, which involves interviewing laborers who severely injured themselves on the job due to their own negligence, filming their cautionary tales so that her superiors can decide who is most deserving of being featured in a workplace-safety PSA. This cruel “contest” may be the despicable act of the multinational company that employs them, offering the “winner” a cash prize, but for Angela it’s just a gig. Considering how abysmal her pay is, she figures she’s being taken advantage of as much as these luckless applicants.

Jude’s films, befitting their brash, sometimes combative English-language titles (“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”), are a volatile mixture of comedy, drama and narrative impishness, their restless experimentation powered by a passion to push audiences to feel — even embrace — society’s insanity and hypocrisy. Much of “Do Not Expect” is shot in unfussy black-and-white, better to capture Angela’s everyday drudgery, which she rebels against in different ways. Maybe she flips off a rude driver or, more cathartically, she’ll take to social media to play her filter-enhanced doppelgänger Bobita, a bald, unibrowed, goateed sexist who mocks “sluts” and pledges allegiance to manosphere figurehead Andrew Tate. Tellingly, these Bobita digressions are presented in gaudy color, a break from the bleakness that surrounds Angela.

This is not the only way “Do Not Expect” toys with the disconnect between image and reality. As Angela meets with the maimed workers, they often tailor their testimonials to what they think will be most appealing to the corporation, their actual circumstance reduced to a pity-inducing performance. And when the company’s off-site Austrian head of marketing, Doris (“Tár’s” wonderfully frosty Nina Hoss), studies the videos, she judges them solely in terms of key demos and flattering P.R. (“She’s Gypsy,” Doris notes of one applicant, “so it will show we’re more inclusive.”)

But Jude has a larger target in mind, juxtaposing Angela’s travails with another Angela also stuck behind the wheel — the one played by Dorina Lazar in the 1981 Romanian film “Angela Moves On.” That Communist-era drama concerned a female taxi driver who’s similarly tooling around Bucharest, her misery equal to that of Manolache’s contemporary Angela, even though Jude’s protagonist seemingly lives in a freer society than the one once ruled by Nicolae Ceaușescu. Eerily slowing down scenes from “Angela Moves On,” which are in color, Jude makes Romania’s past look, simultaneously, more vibrant and more unnerving, a rueful commentary on all the Angelas who have come since Lazar’s, each of them at the mercy of a gig economy that leaves so many fighting for scraps.

A corrosive rage courses through this 163-minute odyssey that’s matched by a leavening absurdism, Jude aghast at the comical stupidity of our inauthentic, greed-driven world. Whether it’s a hilariously awkward Zoom meeting in which the obsequious Romanian PSA production team tries currying favor with Doris — “We want to use a gold diffusion filter,” the hapless director blurts out while explaining his cinematic vision — or the randomness of Angela encountering Z-movie auteur Uwe Boll at his orneriest, Boll-iest best, “Do Not Expect” is alive with the chaos of a hyper-connected, deeply disappointing 21st century. No doubt Jude means Angela’s “Ode to Joy” ringtone to be ironic, but the more its gratingly monotonous melody appears in the film, each time her face an expression of pure loathing, the funnier it becomes, an acknowledgment of the barrage of inane stimuli perpetually bombarding us.

Manolache has appeared in previous Jude films, but never as prominently, and she’s delightful company. Her character’s cleansing disgust exudes the thorny defiance so many of us recognize as a principled protest to insurmountable economic, social and political ills. Angela doesn’t retreat into Bobita because she agrees with her online persona’s cretinous worldview — she’s attacking the misogyny and ignorance of our times by embedding herself within it, unleashing her anger by embodying the worst qualities of public discourse.

One could argue Jude is doing something similar, advocating that we release our vitriol by laughing at the corruption and poisonous self-absorption Angela witnesses. In recent years, his movies have espoused a burn-it-all-down mentality that’s both subversive and liberating. But as “Do Not Expect” reaches its brilliant finale, doubling down on this satire’s evisceration of consumerism, Jude also harks back to his first feature, 2009’s droll “The Happiest Girl in the World,” about a young girl who’s won a contest and now must film a peppy soda commercial to collect her prize. That commercial didn’t go smoothly, and neither does the one in “Do Not Expect.” Both of them reflect Jude’s disdain for the ways people inoculate themselves from harsh truths in order to enjoy a false, sunnier version of life. His gleeful, prickly cinema offers a jolting remedy. The world is ending, Jude argues — and it can’t get here soon enough.

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