Written by: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Featuring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
Paul Safranek: “I’ll see you on the other side.”
High concept movies either work, become talking points which can reflect societal, political or economic norms either challenging them or reinforcing ideas or concepts that may exist now, or in times to come. One of the more successful in recent times was the excellent Spike Jonze “Her” (2013) featuring Joachim Phoenix falling in love with the voice on his smartphone – it even garnered an Oscar for its screenplay. Now we have the release of “Downsizing” (2017) which is a quasi sci-fi mixed with drama as well as some black comedy thrown in which all work to greater and lesser extents throughout its two hour plus running time. To be fair I think it was supposed to be a satire but that element has been squeezed out as other genre elements have taken over. There is no doubt that some of the ideas, as well as the central premise of the film seem interesting, but it becomes bland as well as dull quite quickly. Also a note to the director if you have to advertise that your movie is a satire then that element has not worked.
The film is co-written and directed by Alexander Payne who has been seen at points in his career as a smart, quirky and in touch director with his first few films like “Election” (1999), “About Schmidt” (2002) and “Sideways” (2004), but lost his way with the underwhelming “The Descendants” (2011), then got back on track with the excellent Bruce Dern starring “Nebraska” (2013). To say that he has a type of movie is an understatement, so it was with delight that he seemed to be entering the aforementioned Spike Jonze territory of “Downsizing”, unfortunately he does not have the inventiveness as well as general strangeness of that director to pull this off effectively.
“Downsizing” is set in a possible near future, Paul and Audrey Safranek are a married couple in Omaha with financial issues. At a high-school reunion, they encounter Dave and Carol Johnson who have “downsized,” an irreversible process invented 15 years earlier that involves shrinking humans to a height of five inches. While the inventors advocate that downsizing is environmentally friendly through the reduction of waste, Dave argues its benefits extend far beyond that, and improve one’s life through the increase in value of their money.
Exploring the possibilities of downsizing, Paul and Audrey agree to undergo the process and move to Leisureland, one of the most popular communities for small individuals. After undergoing downsizing, Paul receives a call from Audrey, saying that she was unable to go through the procedure and opting out at the last minute, and will be leaving him.
The film moves on from here much like Payne’s previous film “About Schmidt” where it becomes a kind of road movie where characters are introduced then dispensed with which means that there is an excuse to cast cameos such as Christoph Waltz, Laura Dern, Jason Sudekis, Neil Patrick Harris, Niecy Nash, Udo Kier, Margo Martindale, Joaquim de Almeida and James Van Der Beek, just to name the obvious ones. Cameos in movies can be great, but when it is on overload like it is here it removes you from a narrative that is tenuous in the first place, which is a shame because it subtracts from the enjoyment of a film like this. There is precedent though for a movie where the main character starts in a place where he seems to be hard done by, then meanders through a plot that sees him continually being stripped of who he thought he was to become someone he can actually stand. Again that is something that happens to the Jack Nicholson character in “About Schmidt”. The problem is that I get the feeling that Payne wanted to remake that film, but this film lacks a real spark like Nicholson to keep an audience involved for long.
That brings me to the main character of Paul played by Matt Damon who takes his role seriously, looking like he might be playing his age, not glamming it up for the cameras at all. I never doubt the sincerity of any of Damon’s performances, he has worked with some of the best modern directors of our time, yet I somehow feel something lacking in his performances which is a shame, as I have grown up with him as a constant in my movie watching life. Damon appears in almost every scene so this is his movie, he has two main co-stars in his wife Audrey played by Kristen Wiig and later Ngoc Lan Tran played by Hong Chau.
In terms of both female characters to say they lend anything to the film would be a compliment. Both of these paper thin characters are shrill harpies, or actively depressing, as well as acting as either a way to hurt Paul or to nag him to get him motivated to move to his next scene. I am not really sure what Payne was thinking when he wrote these two, but I wouldn’t be happy owning up to writing them, or frankly playing them. To say that either of them have any agency at all would be giving them too much credit, his wife tags along with him until she doesn’t, as does Ngoc from the time she meets him and he (spoiler) breaks her leg. What is worse for me is the way the Chinese character of Ngoc is portrayed as an almost caricature of a real person, her accent is something you would expect to hear from a movie made in the 1980s, all racial stereotyping as well a mystery as to her actual motivation. In saying that I did not really understand Ngoc’s purpose within the narrative as well as her contribution to the plot, Paul could have arrived at all the same points without her character existing, so there is that.
There is little to say about Payne’s style, as it seems to be swallowed up in this film, with a budget above US$60 million it is his largest to date. It would be nice to have seen it on the screen but the miniaturization aspect of the movie, while it plays a large part, goes mostly unnoticed which is a shame as the movie is long on process but short on spectacle.
As for the themes of the film, they are a little lost, with mixed messages throughout the plot. I get that the idea was to save the planet through shrinking people so that they needed less as well as wasted less (in actual size that is) but as smaller people their appetite for consumption gets even larger with the increase in wealth as well as the decrease in costs for all goods and services. Not only that but the idea of getting smaller is not the magic bullet it seems, as there is a massive lower class of people who for one reason or another live in slums which is in stark contrast to the advertising that normal people are given to entice them into downsizing. All these points are not made with any real subtly, we are told everything, not shown, which again makes for a rather staid film, I really expect more from Payne.
Ultimately once you get past the special effects as well as the gimmick that is the heart of this movie it really does drag, as it meanders from one scene to another without any real passion behind it. I was expecting so much more than what was here; it really is a case that this is less than the sum of its many small parts. If you enjoy the actors you might get a thrill out of them combined with the high concept but you may feel drained at the end of it.
“Downsizing” is out now on DVD & Blu-ray.