Alexander Payne began an interesting career in ’91 with a 49-minute film about an obsessive photographer called The Passion of Martin. He then continued to make intriguing choices treading the treacherous waters of the abortion debate and high-school democracy. But after reading Louis Begley’s novel, About Schmidt, Payne suddenly became all about the eccentricity of mundanity. His next films were defined by their dedication to realism and the unique characters being crushed by these confines.
Perhaps this is the reason that Downsizing doesn’t work. Matt Damon’s Paul Safranek most certainly gets crushed by his situation, but frankly, being shrunk to five inches tall and abandoned by the woman you love would do that to anybody. To put it bluntly, whatever mastery Alexander Payne may have had for the surreal in the 90s, he forgot to bring it with him into the new millennium.
Paul Safranek, upon finding himself dissatisfied with his current quality of life and not much hope for improvement in the future, turns to the brand-new innovation in conservation commonly known as ‘Downsizing’, a process that permanently reduces you to the size of an anatomically correct Funko Pop.
This new development in environmental awareness means that as you are a 100th the size, you create 100th of the waste. And as your material goods would mean taking up 100th of resources they are 100th of the price. This makes Downsizing wildly popular in North America. Yes, the only thing that convinced the western world to become responsible consumers was the promise that they could over consume, guilt free. Satire.
After waking up on the operating table to the news that his wife chickened out on living life like a Barbie doll, Paul finds his new found fortune cut in half and not much better off now than when he started. This is merely the beginning of his realisation that this brand-new way of life isn’t all that was sold to him.
He meets a decadent smoothie played by Christoph Waltz and a political dissident played by Hong Chau. Chau’s character, Ngoc Lan Tran, was Downsized against her will by the institution she was protesting against and exiled out of her home country in a cardboard box being used to ship a TV. All of her companions either died in the box or from their injuries, shortly after being freed. Her own leg had to be partially amputated due to her own wounds. This is just one of the nefarious ways the environment saving Downsizing was taken advantage of by the greedy and powerful.
Ngoc Lan Tran becomes the film’s guide to its ham-fisted social message becoming a walking lecturer, hectoring the hapless Paul and by extension the audience throughout the latter half of the film. She then becomes one of the most out-of-nowhere love interests in cinematic history with Paul having sex with her without any prior expression of interests. It’s the kind of tone deaf move that could only be expected from a film whose head is so far up its own arse its ears are being muffled it’s large intestine.
It’s a shame too, because the first hour of the film, the one that deals in the tensions and apprehensions of giving up a life you will never be able to go back to, is by far and away the most compelling stretch of the film. It deals with the anxiety of making a huge life change and the wider political implications of leaving humanity behind. However, it does this with presentation so bland the word realism is inaccurate because even that implies an attempt at a coherent style. I can only think to call it ‘regular’ as it seems to consist of bog standard shots that Payne forgot to add any sense of style to.
This changes when the characters finally start getting close to the tiny town of ‘Leisure Land’ and Payne starts to have fun with his premise. The film’s production design is outstanding. Even without a frame of reference all of the downsized sets never stop seeming like dollhouses thanks to a certain artificial quality that persists in the sets and props throughout. It’s just too bad that Payne elected to take that artificial philosophy and inject it into the plot.
The few times the film decides to extend beyond exhibition, it constructs drama conceits so predictable you will the film along another thirty seconds just to reach the inevitable conclusion. As the artificial melodrama plays out, you’re getting annoyed at the film for wasting your time with such obvious answers to such clichéd questions. The film constantly finds itself in the state of a seesaw. If it is weighted by plot and character, then the visuals barely even qualify as cinema. If it is offering awe inspiring visuals, it forgets to enhance them with an interesting plot.
One of the worst things about the film is how determined they are to shove a tired, moralising environment parable down your throat instead of taking its core premise to any one of the thousands of places that at the very least would make for a more entertaining film. From the first time we see a 5 inch tall man on top of a podium in an auditorium, I was wracked with nerves about what would happen if he fell off, what was for him, the equivalent to a 20 storey building. He would go splat, obviously but I kept thinking why does he not have a harness on at least?
Then there’s the moment when Matt Damon is scooped up by a spatula when he first undergoes the procedure and the fragility and vulnerability of these tiny people was made so vividly clear to me, my immediate concern was how little it would take for them all to be wiped off the face of the earth. But the dramatic potential for such a concept goes unfulfilled because instead of something remotely engaging happening, Payne can’t resist having another character deliver another preachy piece of patronising exposition.
Some of the character monologues have all the excitement of a work safety video and explain the plot lke it was a poorly implemented video game tutorial. It’s as if this is his tribute to the stilted, marionette-like style of Wes Anderson with no real understanding how to make that tone pop. By the time the film reaches it’s Hobbit-esque final act I started to believe its target audience was primary school children for all of the condescending soapboxing it was doing.
As a pitch, Downsizing holds all the promise of a box full of antique action figures from the 1980’s. What it gave us was a crate full of styrofoam and a big roll of bubble wrap that’s already been popped.
Dir: Alexander Payne
Scr: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
Prd: Mark Johnson, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
DOP: Phedon Papamichael
Music: Rolfe Kent
Runtime: 135 mins