DOWNSIZING (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated R
(for strong language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, and drug use)
Released: December 22, 2017
Runtime: 135 minutes
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudekis

Much like the main character in this unique premise, Downsizing has an identity crisis.

It’s a movie unsure of what it wants to be, yet there’s a lot of interesting things being said and going on within that confusion. Director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, Election) takes his usual, acute scalpel to the human condition with intriguing results, if ultimately to overly ambitious ends.

A sci-fi movie without the normal sci-fi trappings, Downsizing is set in the near (but undated) future. Norwegian scientists have discovered a way to shrink humans while maintaining atomic and biological integrity. This advancement is pitched as a way to deal with climate change; significantly smaller people and communities use less energy, including fossil fuels.

From this scientific breakthrough comes an inevitable new market boon. Downsized communities start to pop up all over the world, competing against each other for residents looking to make the socially conscious transition.

For most people though, like Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), the appeal becomes less about saving the planet and more about elevating their lifestyle.

Given that downsized people/communities consume less resources, they end up living like multimillionaires. The meager savings of a struggling middle-income couple, like the Safraneks, now goes a long way.

Drawn to mega-mansion extravagance, the Safraneks decide to shrink. It will mean, however, mostly cutting themselves off from the normal-sized world, including friends and loved ones.

Downsizing’s first act setup is inspired, a fascinating idea packed with wry, insightful commentary, as well as some pointed critiques about the possible pitfalls that could rise from this innovation. It’s a though-provoking social satire that rings relevant.

But when the story crosses over into the miniature Leisure Land community, suddenly Downsizing doesn’t know what to do with itself.

The ideas are still there, but the focus is not.

In typical Payne fashion – which is defined by a healthy, hilarious cynicism about human endeavors – he uses the transition to subvert the setup. It’s a good instinct. As Payne begins to explore material avarice in downsized communities, he causes us to rightly ask “At what price, Utopia?”

Does a Utopian construct make us more selfish, less grateful? Do prejudices become magnified, and class divides repeat themselves? Is this simply a new way for the rich to take advantage of the poor and disenfranchised?

These are worthy questions, diluted by a meandering narrative. A benevolence-peddling shyster embodies this altruistic underbelly (played gamely by Chrisoph Waltz) but, as a provocateur better suited for a more sordid take on the same concept, he muddies the thematic waters and jars the film’s tone.

Everything that’s interesting in Downsizing is subtext, all made subordinate to a plot that settles for the clichéd arc of Paul’s midlife crisis. Suffice it to say, the existential angst of the American white male just doesn’t resonate like it used to.

Also, an indictment from Hollywood on first world materialism is an irony-rich pot/kettle black thing, a blindspot of elitism that only inflates as this alt-future planet becomes threatened by impending doom.

To the extent this grasping-at-straws fable remains grounded, it’s all rooted in the revelatory performance by newcomer Hong Chau.

Playing a former civil rights dissident now marginalized in the miniature world, Chau takes what is little more than a comic firecracker catalyst for Paul (a Manic Pixie Social Activist, if you will) and elevates the role to the whole soul of the movie. Surprisingly tender moments emerge down the stretch and, though likely intended for Damon, it’s Chau that delivers them.

There’s a lot that goes wrong and off the rails here…and yet, it’s also rare nowadays for a studio movie to be this seditious, this risk taking, this original, despite clunky overreach. Downsizing may not be consistent, but it’s not predictable either. There’s something to be said for that.

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