Downsizing

Downsizing-rev Downsizing  (2017)    Paramount/Sci-Fi-Comedy-Drama    RT: 135 minutes    Rated R (language, sexual references, some graphic nudity, drug use)    Director: Alexander Payne    Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor    Music: Rolfe Kent    Cinematography: Phedon Papamichael    Release date: December 22, 2017 (US)    Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgard, Ingjerd Egeberg.

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 Talk about mass mismarketing. The previews for Downsizing, the latest film from Alexander Payne (The Descendants), look like a whimsical concept comedy about miniaturized people in a big (regular-sized) world. Let me tell you, that is NOT an accurate description. It’s not whimsical, comedic only in a dark sense and has little to do with little people living in an oversized world. Downsizing actually starts with an intriguing premise but fails to take it in an interesting or original direction. What might have been an intelligent sci-fi satire becomes a routine drama about a flawed character learning to care about others. Is this really the best Payne could do with such a fascinating idea?

 downsizingIt occurs to me that I have yet to explain the premise of Downsizing. It’s a pretty good one. In the near future, a group of Norwegian scientists have invented an irreversible process called “downsizing” in which people are shrunk down to five-inch versions of themselves. The idea is to save the planet by literally reducing the population which would mean less trash, less waste and smaller carbon footprints. Paul Safranek (Damon, the Bourne movies), an occupational therapist in Omaha, isn’t exactly living the American Dream. He and his wife Audrey (Wiig, The Martian) want to move to a bigger house but can’t afford it. They’re mired in debt. They decide to get downsized after talking with friends who underwent the process. There are many benefits to downsizing; mainly, it increases one’s financial worth. Paul and Audrey’s $52,000 becomes $12 million in the small world.

 The process of downsizing is shown in detail. All body hair is removed. All gold teeth are removed too (otherwise people’s heads would explode during the procedure). The unconscious people are placed in an oven and shrunk down (kind of like Shrinky Dinks, remember those?). When Paul wakes up, he takes a phone call from his wife who decided not to go through with it. They later get divorced, taking away the life of ease he anticipated in Leisureland, a popular and affluent community in the small world. He’s forced to go to work as a telemarketer. It’s about this point where Downsizing loses it way.

 Paul’s upstairs neighbor, aging party boy Dusan (Waltz, Django Unchained), tries to get him to loosen up by inviting him to one of his all-night soirees. It’s the morning after that changes Paul’s life. It turns out one of Dusan’s cleaning ladies is Ngoc Lan Tran (Chau, Inherent Vice), a Vietnamese dissident who made the news some years back when she and some others escaped to the US in a TV box after being forcibly downsized. She enlists Paul’s help in tending to the sick and bringing food to the hungry in the poor outer areas of Leisureland.

 It’s disheartening how Downsizing goes from intriguing to conventional. Even the fact that the main characters are tiny becomes moot. You’d think that conflict with the big world would be a constant since it’s hinted at early on in a scene where a guy in a bar gets into it with Paul over the rights of the downsized. Do they really deserve the same rights as big people? Oh my but this sounds familiar. Sadly, Payne drops it. Any and all interesting points about humanity and current social ills are cast aside in favor of a weak story about a guy who loses everything and finds his heart. Ho-hum. Maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad if Damon put forth a little more effort. He’s very bland in the Everyman role. Paul has no personality so it’s tough to discern his particular faults. Is he supposed to be self-centered and uncaring? Based on Damon’s non-performance, I can’t say. Chau turns in a very shrill performance as Ngoc; it reached the point where I cringed every time she opened her mouth. Waltz is something of a bore. Wiig is pretty good as the wife but she disappears after the first 30 minutes.

 There are some good visuals in Downsizing. The effects are actually quite good. Movies have come a long way since The Incredible Shrinking Woman. Unfortunately, it turns ugly once the action moves to the poorer areas of Leisureland. It also gets more depressing as it goes along. A doomsday cult comes into the story in the final act. At 135 minutes, Downsizing runs a bit too long. It’s just not a good movie which is a shame since Payne had a perfect record until now. His resume is impressive; Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska- all excellent! Downsizing brings his winning streak to an end. It’s a huge disappointment made worse by the fact Payne had a great idea to work with. So many possibilities and he goes with the least interesting one. Oh well, all filmmakers stumble at some point. Here’s to Payne regaining his footing in his next picture. 

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