Synopsis – A social satire in which a man realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself to five inches tall, allowing him to live in wealth and splendor.
My Take – Once in a while, we come across a film, which upon viewing turns out to be something quite different than we actually anticipated from the marketing campaigns, and no I don’t mean that the result being a pleasant surprise like the 2012 film, Cabin in the Woods, but instead the action less snore fest of 2011 known as Drive. Yes, like most even I was quite surprised to find that this Alexander Payne directed film had also pulled this misleading trick. If you have seen the trailers for this film, you would walk in thinking it to be a Matt Damon led light comedy with Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudekis in supporting roles, while doing a modern take on the well-known Gulliver Tale. On the contrary, this film turned out to be serious study of a man trying to find his place in the world, who joins the shrinking phenomena to escape his life, only find life more difficult. While there is no doubt that director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska, The Descendants) is one of most talented and engrossing storytellers of our times, mainly having delivered back-to-back films that offer heart, soul and humor, its only sensible that you expect the best out of him, but here, in his most expensive film to date, he somehow fails to decide on a genre, and as a result misses every opportunity to make his film, despite a brilliant concept and exceptional first act, an entertaining or interesting film. Being billed as a comedy, the film has all elements needed for a superb comedy, like, quirky characters who are engaging, a situation lending themselves to humor – except the film decides to skip over its laugh out moments and focus more on a political agenda which in the end just leaves you depressed and bewildered.
The story follows Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an occupational therapist, who along with his wife, Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig), in the near future, decides to join a scientific revolution, in which people are shrunk and placed in experimental communities, not just to solve the crisis of diminishing environment, but also to provide a new gateway to riches, as smaller people means smaller usage of resources, therefore, a dollhouse can now become a mansion. This has lured a lot of people into this procedure known as downsizing, but of course there is a catch; it’s irreversible, so those that go in are staying that size, something which doesn’t bother Paul and Audrey, who due to their poor financial conditions, are looking for a way out. Even though Paul goes through with it, Audrey surprisingly backs out half way through and files for divorce, leaving Paul alone in a world new to him. Along the way, he encounters Dusan Mirkovic (Christopher Waltz), a party animal neighbor and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former Vietnamese political prisoner, and now house cleaner, forcing Paul to reassess his life and choices. No doubt, this is one of the most original ideas I can recall in recent memory, and while this film does display some brilliant cinematography, and blending of special effects and scenery to create a world that feels a merge of both small and big people, it does prove a point – a great idea doesn’t make a film great, as this is a film that could’ve done so much more with its premise. The film only flirts with the idea of going small, it instead, becomes a tonally jarring film, whose narrative is as broken as India and America’s current political scenario. Director Alexander Payne‘s films are known for their social commentary on mid-life crises, personal tragedy, dysfunctional relationships and pretty much life’s difficult moments, this period, which comes standard with dark humor, is usually the make or break point in his films, which is why this one in theory is director Payne‘s most ambitious film yet. The concept is brilliant, to say the least, and deals with multiple issues on a global scale – over consumption, global warming, prejudice, poverty, crime, and even the future of human existence. These are addressed very early in the film followed by an astounding solution, by living a very lavish life for less than $60 a day, and in the process, eradicate all those aforementioned problems. Throughout the first act, I found myself immersed in this world and couldn’t wait to be taken on its journey with the downsizing segment perhaps being the best part of the film as it is funny and strange at the same time with creative attention to detail. As soon as you’re brought into this other world that has been built for those who shrunk themselves over the years, you will find yourself kind of transfixed at how interesting the visuals are and how well the comedic aspects come into play, but what you don’t expect is for the film to take a dramatic turn and really have you thinking hard about the world we live in and whether or not certain lines of dialogue are true about society in general. At this point, director Payne is clearly having fun with the story and the satire is unmissable – Size doesn’t matter when you’re rich.
But there’s trouble brewing in paradise. Soon after Paul is taken under the wing by his mysterious neighbor and party animal Dusan, the story takes a ninety degree turn with the arrival of Ngoc Lan Tran in Leisure land, where the film becomes a mashup of several ideas director Payne is playing with all at once. From this point the film becomes serious about poverty, class warfare, environmental issues, and immigration. It is at this midway point that the film loses all of its sense of humor and slogs its way to an absurd finish. Because of this indecisiveness, the film feels a little slow and boring at times, which when mixed with the crushing weight of the issues, leaves one a little tired than entertained despite the clever writing and comedy. Being billed as heavily comedic, does the comedy work? Mostly, while I didn’t think the film was ever gut-busting funny, I did find myself laughing here and there, as some of the gags they did with the difference in size we quite good. It raises some interesting questions about possible ecological disaster, but then fails to reach any point. The film opens and closes with discussion of an impending ecological disaster, approximately 200 years in the future that is guaranteed to result in the extinction of the human race. However, the proponents of this theory never explain how it is going to occur, other than a vague reference to the release of methane gasses from the arctic. But worse, the main characters of the film, who seem to be very intelligent, completely reject the environmentalist’s solution and decide to just keep in doing what they are doing. There are also many characters that come in and out of this film in a heartbeat, pretty much leaving them in the dust, when in reality they were actually interesting and added a layer to the overall story. It felt as though director Alexander Payne wanted to focus so much on the idea of the end of the world concept, that he sidelined quite a few characters along the way. Technically, director Payne hasn’t made a bad film, he has clearly made a confused film, which seems like two or three films mixed into one. It’s this simple, it was about shrinking yourself for your own good and it remains that for 45-minutes. But the rest of the film, is nothing of what it was meant to be. The other track involving Ngoc Lan Tran is interesting for a bit, but it doesn’t last beyond 25-minutes, and the last track involving a catastrophe, is devoid of any emotion. By the time the film ends, you’ll be confused what too feel for it. And what was it trying to say? Shame, because director Payne is known to be a master at his craft. This is a film that promises a lot and tries to deliver on all of those promises, while also shoving in side plots that make this film too emotionally complex to really be invested in the satirical aspects by the end. However, the film features good performances from both the main and supporting cast. Matt Damon is well-suited here and his sympathetic performance in the central role of an every-man with dreams of a better future. To his credit, Damon navigates the rough seas this film puts him through to deliver a solid performance. Hong Chau, who makes her part far more appealing than it deserves, steals the show here and makes this poorly written stereotypical harpy role memorable with her well deserving Golden Globe nominated strong act. In supporting roles, Udo Kier was good, while Christoph Waltz was particularly very funny, as Paul’s upstairs downsized neighbor who is unabashed in his ability to bootleg normal sized things into this little world. The film could have also benefited with a little more screen time of Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis, a pair of solid performers, who were alright here in their extended cameos. In even smaller roles, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris and Margo Martindale are wasted. On the whole, ‘Downsizing’ is a surprising dud from a talented director, whose film despite interesting characters and a compelling premise, fails to rise above its lousy execution.
Directed – Alexander Payne
Rated – R
Run Time – 135 minutes