DownsizingReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/22/17 12:19:27
A couple months ago, I found myself staggering out of a screening of “Suburbicon” convinced that I would see no greater waste of a good premise and an array of top-flight talents on both sides of the camera in 2017. As it turns out, not only was that not the case, it was not even the most complete waste of premise and talent released by Paramount Pictures and starring Matt Damon released during the final quarter of the year. No, that booby prize goes to “Downsizing,” an absolutely baffling exercise in misfired social satire from the usually reliable Alexander Payne that starts off intriguingly enough as it establishes its promising concept and then proceeds to squander all the good will it has accumulated on one botched scene after that makes you wonder what Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor were thinking of when they were writing it, what Damon and the rest of the cast were thinking when they signed on to do it and what the producers were thinking when they decided to sink what must have been a tidy sum into bringing it to semi-life.The conceit is that in the not-too-distant future, a Swedish scientist (Rolf Lassgard) stumbles upon a method where people can be shrunk to about four inches tall. This process is then sold to the public as a godsend that will allow them to help save the environment by literally reducing their ecological footprint. As a more attractive lure, by shrinking themselves, they will theoretically be able to live a lifestyle that they could not possible achieve in their normal state—a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the full-size world translates into something like $12 million. Our hero, low-paid corporate drone Paul Safranek (Damon), meets with an old friend (Jason Sudekis) who has downsized and sings the praises of the irreversible process and convinces his wife, Audrey (Kristin Wiig), that this is their best shot to have a better lifestyle and, of course, do their part to save the environment. Alas, when the couple make their way to the clinic to get themselves downsized, things do not go quite as planned.
These early scenes are easily the best in the film and give hope that “Downsizing” could become a great mix of science fiction and social satire. The entire downsizing concept—from its altruistic origins to the ways in which it is subtly perverted in order to sell it to the masses to the depiction of the process itself—has been smartly laid out by Payne and Taylor and expertly visualized by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael in ways that offer up any number of big laughs ranging from the sly satirical daggers one might expect from the people who made “Election” to any number of imaginative sight gags. Up until this point, I was amused, I was intrigued and I found myself wondering what the film had gotten such bad buzz when it played the festival circuit last fall.
Unfortunately, it was at this very point, where Paul has been downsized and Audrey has been dispatched in a harsh and unpleasant manner, that the proceedings take a sharp turn south to the depths of movie hell. Suffice it to say, the fun-sized lifestyle Paul was hoping for does not quite pan out and he finds himself no better off than he was before in a world where people are just as wasteful and thick-headed as always. Along the way, he is befriended by Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), a Eurosleaze who sees this tiny new frontier as being ripe for profitable exploitation. Through him, Paul also winds up meeting Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese refugee who smuggled herself to the U.S. in a television box, losing part of her leg in the process, and who now spends her days cleaning houses and her nights altruistically tending to the similarly downtrodden people living in a shrunken slum just out of sight and mind. Congenital do-gooder Paul finds himself assisting Ngoc in her duties and this leads, inexplicably, to a journey that the two take, along with Dusan and his German cohort (Udo Kier) that takes them to a commune founded by the man who invented the downsizing process, much to his eventual chagrin, and reveals that not even going down to pocket-size alone will curb mankind’s self-destructive tendencies towards the planet.
Not one single moment of any of this works at all. The sharp satire of the early scenes transforms into empty cynicism as Payne and Taylor completely lose track of whatever story they were hoping to tell. By the time the film gets to its final section at the commune, it becomes agony to sit through as it essentially reduces itself to the notion that all people, regardless of size, are wasteful and hopeless idiots. Paul becomes a sanctimonious bore who grows so tiresome after a while that most people would, given the choice, probably prefer listening to a loop of Matt Damon’s recent public pronouncements than any more of the dialogue he has been asked to deliver. And yet, Paul still comes off as reasonably tolerable when compared to the weirdly offensive depiction of Ngoc. Granted, one probably should not go to the Payne/Taylor oeuvre for a nuanced depiction of non-Caucasian characters but the combination of her obnoxious altruism and dialogue that is borderline racist in the caricatures that it traffics in makes her one of the most off-putting characters to hit the screen in a long time and the fact that we are theoretically supposed to like and admire her only makes it worse. The only character that is even remotely worth following is Dusan and that is less because of the role itself (which is just as much of a collection of hackneyed cliches as anything else here) and more due to the fact that even a subpar Christoph Waltz performance tends to have at least some intrinsic entertainment value, no matter how much Payne tries to smother it.If “Downsizing” had been made by a terrible filmmaker or even an aggressively mediocre one, I might not have minded it quite as much. However, Alexander Payne is neither terrible nor a hack—“Election” continues to be one of the great American film satires of our time (a quick spin of the new Criterion Blu-ray will confirm that) and such subsequent films as “Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” “The Descendants” and “Nebraska,” though not without their flaws, are nevertheless smart, funny and thoughtful films that stand in marked contrast to the usual multiplex drivel. This time around, for reasons I cannot begin to understand—perhaps he fell in love with the idea of the early scenes, could not figure out how to build upon them in a satisfactory manner and decided to proceed anyway—he stumbles so badly that it almost makes you want to go back over the earlier films and see if they really were that good in the first place. The best thing that one can possibly say about “Downsizing” is that it is such a mess that it feels as if Payne is getting rid of all of his bad ideas in one fell swoop as a way of clearing the creative decks. Hopefully that is the case, Payne will go back to making the strong films that one normally associates with him and if the subject of “Downsizing” ever comes up, it will cause him to shrink from embarrassment.
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