Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is set in a familiar-looking near future in which Danish scientists have developed a technical/medical procedure for reducing the size of human beings to a height of about five inches. It is presented as a means to a noble end—managing Earth’s rapidly depleting resources and securing the future of humankind—although, like many noble ideas, it ends up being sold as a life improvement plan, allowing people to live much better lives in a diminutive state than they would be able to full size (because everything costs less when one is small, $150,000 can buy you the equivalent of $12.5 million). As we tend to do in our commercial-capitalistic society, the new technology is almost immediately monetized, packaged, and sold like any other consumer choice, complete with trade shows and sales pitches that look not unlike those we would currently associate with buying a time-share. Nothing, it seems, is beneath consumerism.
And, when Downsizing sticks to this focus, it is a good, if hardly great, social satire that stabs right at the heart of our tendency to reduce every discovery, every invention, every achievement to something sellable. Payne and his frequent co-screenwriter Jim Taylor put a great deal of effort into this set-up, and it mostly works because it feels entirely plausible. The special effects used to render the notion of five-inch people co-existing in the world of normal sized people is a bit dodgy at times, but the basic idea is solid.
But, then, something happens. No, actually, many things happen. Just when Downsizing seems to be cruising on a steady track, it starts fracturing, fragmenting, and spinning out in multiple, largely unexpected, and almost wholly unsatisfying directions. There is a part of me that wants to credit Payne and Taylor for going after the unanticipated, refusing to adhere to the obvious, and reaching for not just one, but a whole bunch of grand statements about human relationships, economies, and the world we’re destroying. There is real, genuine daring at the heart of Downsizing, and that should be applauded. Unfortunately, that daring ends up making the film feel like an inconsistent grab-bag of ideas, narratives, and character arcs that never really cohere or even make that much sense. It’s as if Payne and Taylor started writing one story, but then got off track with some vaguely connected, loosely associated ancillary ideas that they just couldn’t shake. And those ideas pretty much take over.
Although, like most of Payne’s films, Downsizing starts in Omaha, Nebraska, the town in which he was born, it differs significantly from his previous works (which, to his credit, have demonstrated a sense of emotional and thematic growth from dark cynicism to a cautiously guarded sense of humanism). The first difference—which, while being the most obvious, is also completely unrelated to the film’s quality—is its genre: Downsizing is speculative science fiction, while all of Payne’s previous films have been realistic social comedies, with nary a hint of genre material. Thus, his decision to make a sci-fi satire would seem to be completely out of left field and not particularly in sync with his previous work, but as it turns out, the genre doesn’t really matter one way or the other. The genre trappings are necessary for the story—at least for its first half anyway, as one of the more curious aspects of Downsizing is that its raison d'être is largely discarded in the second half.
The second difference, however, is much more important and ultimately fatal to the film’s effectiveness: Downsizing is centered on a generally uninteresting protagonist, which is in complete opposition to Payne’s tendencies to make films about intriguing, sometimes infuriating, but always interesting and compelling protagonists. Matt Damon’s Paul Safranek is a nondescript everyman who, like James Stewart’s George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), has constantly had to postpone his dreams to manage life in the moment, but unlike George, fails to rise to any level of interest. When we first meet him, he is a younger single man still living at home so he can care for his ailing mother (Jayne Houdyshell). Five years later, he is still living in his childhood home, but his mother has passed away and he is now married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who seems nice enough. However, it is clear that they are both dissatisfied with their lives and their economic standing, which is why they are drawn to downsizing, where they can live out the “American Dream” in a miniature model town of pleasant streets, immaculate landscaping, and enormous (for them) McMansions that, in the large world, they could never afford. Everything goes according to plan, but then it doesn’t, and Paul finds himself five inches tall, living in a nondescript apartment building, and befriending Dusan Mirkovic (Christopher Waltz), the flamboyant Serbian opportunist who lives above him and is given to throwing lavish Euro-trash disco parties, one of which opens Paul’s eyes and mind—or something. Soon thereafter he is drawn to Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a hobbled Vietnamese dissident who was briefly famous but is now working as a cleaner. And that’s only the film’s midway point.
Despite all the narrative ups and down, twists and turns, Paul remains frustratingly dull, uninteresting, and unengaging. Even when he is supposedly liberated, beating a drum in the dying sunlight on a Norwegian mountain surrounded by others who may be humanity’s last chance or a misguided doomsday cult (don’t ask), it is hard to care much for his predicament or how it will turn out, which proves fatal for the film both thematically and emotionally. Damon does well in the film’s first half, and he has some nice comic moments in which his intrepid dullness comes into conflict with the unhinged world in which he lives, but it never adds up. Payne, the creator of such vital, fascinating characters as Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick (Election, 1999), Jack Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt (2002’s About Schmidt), and Paul Giamatti’s Miles (Sideways, 2004) strands us with a protagonist to whom a great deal happens, but about whom it is difficult to care at all. It leaves a huge void in the center that all the meandering narrative shenanigans in the world can’t hide.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainemtn
Overall Rating: (2)
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