December 22, 2017
Alexander Payne, the brilliant filmmaker behind Sideways, Election, and The Descendants (not the Disney variety) has an unflinching, slightly twisted way of looking at life, through a lens simultaneously cynical yet idealistic. The world is so dumb but, oh, it could be so great! With his latest film, Downsizing, he adds a sci-fi element to his unique storytelling style. Payne co-wrote the script with long-time writing partner Jim Taylor, but the premise sounds a lot like a Charlie Kaufman-spun yarn in the manner of Being John Malkovich or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The formula: take an ordinary person, give them an extraordinary technology, then look at it through my wacky kaleidoscope.
In Downsizing, Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, the personification of white America; over-stressed, cash-strapped, and disillusioned. He’s over it, all of it. He’s ready to go on a cattle drive with Billy Crystal. He’s ready for Kevin Spacey’s imaginary rose petals to start falling (too soon?).
Luckily, in the world of Downsizing, Norwegian scientists have invented a method to shrink people in an effort to cure overpopulation. In addition to doing your civic duty by not taking up so much damn space and diminishing your carbon footprint, there are other perks to “getting small.” Most notably, your money goes a whole lot further! Basically, what would cost you $1,000 as a normal-sized human only costs $1 when you’re five inches tall thanks to the miracle of proportionality. Small people can have the things previously only for the rich! Paul sees the shrinking procedure as a way of escaping his old life and starting over with a clean slate, so let the adventure begin!
There are lots of fun visuals a la Honey, I Shrunk the Kids like enormous insects, towering flowers, giant legal documents, and a colossal bottle of vodka, but this is an Alexander Payne film so the shallow simplicity inevitably gives way to deep-layered socio-political satire. Human nature is fundamental regardless of size, so soon there are low-income housing projects, border infiltration by tiny immigrants (and terrorists?), and the question of whether the small should have the same rights as the normal-sized. These ponderings start off interesting enough but the questions eventually start to make your head hurt and the pacing of the film gets bogged down in the philosophical doldrums. What began as a fun sociological exercise soon descends into existentialism and despair, a tone that overstays its welcome for far too much of the movie.
Downsizing does have moments of hilarity, especially from Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz. Interestingly, these two highlights of the movie combine for only a single solitary line in the trailer while comedians Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis are highly billed and featured in the marketing of the film, but their comprehensive performances may, in fact, be in the trailer.
With the help of Ngoc Lan Tran (Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who was smuggled into the U.S. inside a TV box, and Dusan (Waltz), Paul’s eye-opening spiritual shepherd, our hero (and the movie) finally emerges from the gloom, shrouded in selfless enlightenment, on a quest for the thing in life that matters most. It’s an uplifting and far more entertaining final act, but it doesn’t have the evocative flair of Jack Palance’s finger in City Slickers or even Wes Bentley’s plastic bag in American Beauty.
Sometimes when directors have a track record like Alexander Payne, you tend to give them the benefit of the doubt when evaluating their movies. Even in writing this review, as I realize what he is attempting to accomplish and how daring of a move it is, I find myself wanting to give it a better rating. But then I recall how much I was not enjoying watching the valley of darkness that stretches between the intriguing opening and the inspiring end. Ultimately, the thought-provoking peaks are not quite enough to stave off the overall disappointment of a film that is actually pretty forgettable. Is it too late to let Charlie Kaufman have a go at the script?
Star Rating: 2.5 out of 5