Downsizing: What could have been a smart, witty and timely exploration of middle-class desire and consumerism, ideas of utopia, environmentalism and our impact on the earth turned out to be the fatigued and dull journey of a guy finding enlightenment via the oppression of others. We’ve seen this before but it’s always just as disappointing.
Don’t try to please them all, Payne. The idea is intriguing and clever, and if you’ve stepped outside in the last few months, it’s the focus of the campaign that has been pushed at us from all angles via Paramount's aggressive marketing; Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are struggling to make the life they want in Omaha. After finding that their old college friends have undergone the relatively new ‘downsizing’ - as in undergoing a procedure that shrinks you to 10cm tall - in order to live a more desired lifestyle, the Safranek's take the plunge. We learn early on that the procedure was created by Norwegian scientists as a way to reduce human impact on the world, and yet by the time it gets to the Safranek's in the US a decade later, it is marketed as an affordable way to live the American obsession with excess, guilt-free materialism and unfettered leisure time. This in itself is a clever concept that could take a whole movie to explore, and it is somewhat investigated through the impressive production values. You can tell Director Alexander Payne had fun dreaming up this miniature world and all the witty details; there’s a hint of Burton in the sterility of the towering mini-mansions, manicured lawns and mechanical geniality of residents – which as we have been taught through Burton, means there is a sinister dystopia under the façade – but this suspense leads to underwhelming payoff. Similarly, separate movies could be made about the utopian ideal, class, race and desire vs. sustainability. But Payne tried to jam all these into one film - as if to please everyone - leaving the audience underwhelmed and frustrated as the film wobbles its way to the end credits.
Shock! Man finds self-actualization, nothing else matters. After teasing us with tastes of satire and irony while exploring this new ‘small’ world, Payne then settles down to tell the excruciatingly dull story of Paul, a middle-aged, dull, unexceptional guy who is suddenly thrown into an adventure with exceptional people, blah blah blah, important moral of humanity and environmentalism, but Paul achieves self-enlightenment and meaning which is the most important thing of all. Wait, there are also smacks of misogyny, cultural cringe and general lack of regard for anything but Paul’s self-actualization, so that’s also cool I guess. The love interest is introduced as Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a smart, driven woman who, as a political prisoner from Vietnam, and has endured hardships, including the loss of her leg, that is unimaginable to Paul. And yet she is used merely as a tool for Paul to experience the sadly recognizable underbelly of the middle-class utopia created for ‘smalls’ with money. All credit to Chau for adding depth and warmth to a character who, when exercising some truly emotional and poignant moments, is undercut for comedic value – at one point at the expense of her use of broken English. To be honest, I would have preferred to watch a film about her, she was far more interesting. Too interesting to end up with someone as boring as Paul, but as we know in Hollywood, the underachieving male protagonist will always get the girl. Do I rattle on about this too much? Sorry, hard to stay sunny when a film can’t even pass the simple Bechdel test, let alone create a female character that is more than a plot device in the journey of a white hetero dude.
2 for the price of 1. The most confusing part of the movie though was not the skittering between sub-themes, or watching Paul bumble his way through actually quite smart explorative scenes of class divides, race and reflections on the cost of achieving the American Dream – it was the strange turn that the film took halfway through. I might have been able to come to terms with a film that tried to address the cost of our current capitalist lifestyle on minorities and those that fall short of middle class, however clumsily it was done. But perhaps that is too close to home, making audiences uncomfortable? Too reflective of their own desires outweighing the cost of consumerism on others and the environment? Hollywood doesn’t want to induce squirming self-reflection. So heck, the only option is to take the story on a sharp left turn, move it to another country and add in an apocalyptic ultimatum. Then we can focus on the rescuing of mankind – much nobler, Hollywood knows how to do that. In fact, the whole film feels like an indie flick that’s been hijacked by an overbudgeted producer (Paramount in this case), which has beefed up the production value, added a blockbuster soundtrack – making the whole thing feel like a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids remake (hijinks ensue!) – and override the original, and pretty smart, concept that you glimpse at the start of the film.
If you want to enjoy this film, watch the trailer, and imagine the rest. It will be far more satisfying.