SHOULD I SEE IT?
The buzz on Downsizing is (ahem) big, the concept appealing to a lot of prospective ticketbuyers.
Balances science-fiction with comedy and attempts to draw interesting parallels between the world we live in now and a dystopian world not all that different from the one we live in now. Except, you know, the "getting small" part.
Fans of Payne's thoughtful dramedies of the past - Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt - will be curious to see him deviate from more grounded stories and direct his first original screenplay since 1996's Citizen Ruth.
Well, the movie is not very good at all. A few individual moments are good, but as a collective viewing experience, the movie has no clue what it wants to be, what it's trying to say, or who it is made for.
Still mulling over that Hong Chau performance. And the use of Kristen Wiig. And the point of Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier. And all the meandering ideas that are abandoned. What happened here?
Perhaps Matt Damon needs to take a break. This was not his year.
Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is the type of movie that should reap great rewards. Payne and collaborator Jim Taylor have won Oscars for their writing in the past and they collaborate here on a tremendously clever idea. What if human beings could reduce their size and live in a new society where money is valued exponentially higher and all of life’s comforts are affordable and available? Waste would be reduced, potential environmental improvements could be accelerated, and those who chose to participate in “Downsizing” could have a better quality of life.
Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, the go-to, middle-aged, down-on-his-luck character Payne places in nearly all of his films. Married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), financial struggles are compounding for the couple and at a high school reunion, Paul and Audrey talk with old married friends Dave (Jason Sudeikis) and Carol (Maribeth Monroe), who recently downsized to a mere 5 inches tall.
The process, created by Norwegian scientists a decade earlier, is irreversible and by the time Paul and Audrey sit down with a spokesperson for Leisure Town, the most popular living community for downsized individuals, more and more people are “getting small.” Signing on the dotted line, they say their goodbyes and prepare for the procedure. And while this sounds like a spoiler, it is now revealed in the trailers that Audrey gets cold feet and Paul wakes up, 5 inches tall, and seemingly alone in his new life.
The basic set-up for Downsizing is good, but as the movie presses forward, we start seeing that Payne and Taylor have lots of things to work through on their storytelling agenda. At a plump 135 minutes, the film is an ambitious, science-fiction comedy/drama that quickly becomes more concerned with creating and introducing ideas and concepts, than following through with them. I cannot recall a Payne film (Nebraska, The Descendants, Election, Sideways) covering so much ground and then failing to connect dots and tie up loose ends like this one.
Naturally, and rather obviously, the perfect world pitched to Paul does not exist. Even though he is acclimated to his new living arrangements, he struggles to make connections, answers phones as a customer service rep for Land’s End, and is emotionally lost. Upstairs neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), with ubiquitous tag-along Konrad (Udo Kier), has converted his apartment into a discotheque-like house of hedonism, where the party never stops. Paul eventually makes friends with them, but never quite fits in.
Again and again we are shown that utopia, in any form, is unattainable. After nearly an hour of cinematic wheel-spinning, Paul strikes up a friendship with a Vietnamese refugee, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), forced into downsizing punitively by her government for political activism. She is one of Dusan’s cleaning ladies and Paul is drawn to her. Upon learning that Paul was an occupational therapist, Lan Tran initially believes he is a doctor who can help repair her badly damaged prosthetic leg. Though they miscommunicate at the outset, eventually the duo find companionship out of necessity, more than anything else.
By the time, Paul realizes Lan Tran’s home is not anything represented in the propaganda used to convince him to get small, Downsizing has already become so unwieldy and off-the-rails we have no idea where any of this is going. Though the visual effects makes this all very easy to digest and buy into, characters and subplots arrive and disappear. Basic questions about sustainability remain ignored. When a crisis of conscience strikes the scientists late in the film, the ruminations feel empty, the commentary devoid of depth.
Are we hearing anything profound or is this just social awareness jabbering without any focus? Sadly, it seems to be the latter.
The amount of material here could easily fill a season of a television show, but Payne and Taylor can’t focus long enough to make their minds up on what direction they want to take their story. As a result, the movie becomes lazy and bloated, with Damon fine but unremarkable in the leading role and most of the jokes and levity provided, with some pathos tossed in, by a terrific Chau.
Chau proves to be the film’s saving grace, but also gives a performance some have found to be regressive in how it depicts Asian characters on screen. Ultimately, that is for the viewer to decide, but when weighing the frustrations that Downsizing routinely generates, Chau’s appearance in the film does require some conversation, even if the actress feels that the controversy is much ado about nothing.
Failing in execution, Payne really has spent 135 minutes of screen time saying nothing of significance, while trying to make big and bold proclamations on a number of social issues. Did he tackle too much? Spit out a bunch of ideas and assume he could fix it in post? It’s hard to pinpoint where Downsizing grows into a movie too big for its britches. Overstuffed and poorly plotted, the movie simply does not work and carelessly raises far more questions than the film is prepared to answer.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Søren Pilmark, Margo Martindale, Niecy Nash, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, James Van Der Beek.
Director: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Release Date: December 22, 2017