Cinema Dispatch: Downsizing

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Downsizing and all the images you see in this review are owned by Paramount Pictures

Directed by Alexander Payne

Every year, there’s usually one movie that starts off getting quite a bit of Awards buzz (mostly due to its cast and filmmakers) that eventually pivots all the way back to being an absolute train wreck once the critics get a chance to see it, and it’s usually not due to a genuine lack of talent on anyone’s part.  More often than not, it’s misguided or something happened in the production that forced corners to be cut, so the badness of these kind of movies tend to be UNIQUE compared to the drivel that usually comes out during the rest of the year.  Last year the winner of this prize was Collateral Beauty that tried SO hard to be a heartfelt and charming tale despite ostensibly being about people acting like total monsters towards someone with emotional issues, and word has been circulating that this is gonna be that film for 2017.  I thought the trailers looked good as does its interesting premise, but I’ve been burned by good trailers before (*cough* Mother *cough*), so I’m hoping for the best but will keep my guard up just in case.  Are the critics right about this film being wholly unable to live up to its lofty ambitions, or is this one of those few instances where the popular consensus will shift once it gets screened for the masses?  Let’s find out!!

The movie follows the adventures of Paul (Matt Damon) who’s a simple man with a ho-hum job living a ho-hum life with his ho-hum wife (Kristen Wiig) in his ho-hum town of Nowhere-ville.  He’s looking for something to spice up his life and to give him a renewed sense of meaning (by which I mean he wants to buy more stuff), so he starts to entertain the idea of him and his wife Downsizing.  What is Downsizing you may ask?  Well it’s a process by which a human can be permanently shrunken down to a fraction of their normal height and then move to a community of similarly shrunken people.  Since things cost less when they are smaller, that means that Paul’s meager life savings can let them live as kings for the rest of their lives in one of these communities, so he eventually makes the leap.  However, his wife doesn’t go with him (balking at the last second) and he’s basically back where he was before; miserable and looking for ways to be happy.  Through his ongoing life in Tiny Town (also known as Leisureland) he meets with a goods trader Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) as well as a Vietnamese protestor who was Downsized against her will named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) that seem to be much happier than him and might just hold the secrets to helping Paul find what he’s been looking for.  Can Paul find a shred of happiness in his sad pathetic life?  What doors with Dusan and even Ngoc open for Paul that will help him on his journey?  Wait, so we have this HUGE premise about people being shrunk down and living in corporate run micro-communities… and we’re focusing on some sad white dude the whole time!?

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HE’S NOT EVEN THE MATT DAMON THAT PUNCHES PEOPLE!

I’m not really MAD at this movie as I am severally disappointed and incredibly frustrated with what is a REALLY great conceit being squandered on an unfocused screenplay.  This is a movie with a phenomenal first act that sets up its premise with confidence and presents it with a level of detail that is to be admirable and utterly fascinating, and you sit there thinking that you’re in for another brilliant character piece by way of a fun sci-fi concept like Being John Malkovich or The Truman Show, but the movie’s ambitions become muddled as it tries to hit a dozen different subjects; almost none of which meaningfully benefit from its primary conceit e and some of which feel kind of tone oblivious if not outright offensive.  It’s just way too boring for me to get overly worked up about it which I GUESS is better than being something that outright pisses me off, but that faint praise does little to overshadow how miserable it is trying to sit through this thing.

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Get it?  There’s a giant flower in the background because they’re small.  Now let’s watch him sadly eat dinner for a while!

Let’s start with what this movie gets right which coincidently is the ONLY parts of the movie shown in the trailer (or at least the one I kept seeing as there seems to be a second one that gives a few more details away).  Seriously, if you’re like me and were sold on this film based on the really interesting premise and the use of a classic Talking Heads song, you’re probably gonna enjoy that first act quite a bit but things go south PRETTY fast once we have to actually pay off the setup.  Still, that setup is genuinely amazing and you can just see the various ways that this idea can be used to tell all sorts of stories about society, classism, and how a capitalistic profit motive can take a horrifying turn if we put too much trust into those systems!  The movie does such a great job of selling you on this idea; not only giving us a rather large time frame to work with (it takes about a decade before the initial experiments are reliable enough to be made available to consumers) but also taking its time to even go through some of the political implications of such technology as some nations have even started using it as a form of punishment in their legal system.  Characters bring up the idea of legal rights, voting, travel, all sorts of brilliant little aspects of this that in and of themselves could be their own movie, not to mention the emotional state of many who wish to downsize and the ruthless exploitation of that for profit even if it comes in a spiffy video presentation hosted by Neal Patrick Harris!  Like Matt Damon’s character, I was getting more and more excited with each passing moment at the possibilities that are just waiting on the other side of being downsized which… well I guess was kind of the point because his disappointment with it was a pretty good mirror of my own.

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“Can you dig it?”     “What!?  We can’t hear you!”     “I SAID, CAN YOU DIG IT!?”

Now the obvious route that this story can go is with Downsizing serving as an analogue for quick fixes and late night infomercial crap that is guaranteed to make you happier and probably lose a bunch of weight in the process, and sure enough that’s where this story is headed as Matt Damon’s life doesn’t really improve once he’s been reduced to a fraction of his original height.  That’s not a bad idea, but the movie essentially drops all those really cool and interesting threads that it so tantalizingly dangled in front of us to just ultimately be about a middle aged white dude who’s spiritually empty; finding that changing the scenery is not a way to improve his self-esteem or sense of emptiness.  The problem is… well, that’s not really INTERESTING, nor does it really have anything to do with him being small now and the whole conceit of the film literally fades into the background as the only real indication that they ARE small is some of the set designs.  Heck, we never even SEE a big person after the half-way point which is absolutely LUDICROUS to me!  Hell, the most obvious idea possible, that the company running this place will slowly begin to roll back features and services for the small people who are entirely dependent on them, isn’t brought either!  What the second act is about is class disparity where the promises of everyone being well off turns out to be a total lie as there is a clear underclass within the small society.  It’s not like we needed a sci-fi premise for THAT message; especially when the downsizing itself isn’t something specific to class as both the rich and the poor are small and there is absolutely no presence of THE BIG PEOPLE by the time we get to this subplot at the halfway point.  It’s also kinda tone oblivious since the struggle of the poverty stricken small people are shown presented entirely through Paul’s eyes and are only really important in so far as how it affects his story.  This isn’t particularly helped by Hong Chau’s character that is pretty much a mix of the Mystical Magical Person of Color trope crossed with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  She’s not bad as a character as she has genuine empathy and emotional intelligence (not to mention she’s got a good sense of humor), but she pretty much only exists as some sort of guardian angel for Matt Damon’s character; not really having an arc of her own to instead guide Matt Damon through his.  He’s just not that engaging of a character and the fact that the movie spends SO much time overlooking much more interesting stories and much worthier characters (even Christoph Waltz as a somewhat sleazy merchant is more engaging) to drag his ass towards maturity feels like the worst use of anyone’s time; both in the movie itself and those who have to sit there and watch it.

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“Everyone line up!  We’ve still got another hour to go!”

Then things get… weird at the end.  I’m not going to spoil it because the trailers do a great job of hiding exactly where the hell this thing is going, but while that would have been a decent idea in a GOOD movie, it only makes things worse here because what we’re all leading up to is not particularly interesting.  It’s just… odd.  Maybe in another movie this could have been more than just a total left turn into absurdity, but here it just doesn’t seem to fit well with anything we’ve seen up to this point.  Well, I guess it DOES fit in so far as it’s a MacGuffin used so that Paul will have to make a choice, but like its initial premise of people getting small, the stuff that happens in the third act is just set dressing for a story about quite possible the least interesting character in a film all year.  It’s just more squandered potential for a movie that didn’t need nearly this much pomp and circumstance to tell, and while I’m not saying that smaller and intimate character pieces CAN’T take place in big idea science fiction universes, it’s still incredibly disappointing that we couldn’t get something that blended the two together in a way that was both satisfying in terms of exploring it’s premise and telling us the story of someone within it.  It also helps if that character is likable or interesting, but let’s at least get the first part right!

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Well she seems delightful!  What’s her story?

There are some very smart people out there who outright detest this movie and are calling it the worst film of the year.  I don’t think I’m quite on that level, mostly due to the fact that I genuinely loved the first act of the movie and the premise behind it, but there’s no denying that this film is not particularly good.  It just never comes together to mean anything more than BE A MORE CARING PERSON and yet takes up halfway around the freaking world just to get to that message which feels completely unnecessary and squanders what good will it had built up at the beginning.  I would not recommend seeing this in the theaters and frankly I wouldn’t really recommend seeing this once it gets a home release.  That first act is absolutely a fantastically executed and intricately detailed set up for something great, but beyond that the movie doesn’t really care to go anywhere with it besides the blandest (and whitest) place possible.  Why don’t they give the sequel to Jordan Peele so they can see how to do this kind of story right?

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