Saturday, 13 January 2018

Review: Downsizing

Cert: 15 / 135 mins / Dir. Alexander Payne / Trailer

Much like the preview screening I attended last week, I'm not entirely convinced I'm on the same page as this film*1. All that follows is highly subjective and based on the track record that any Matt Damon movie being released in the early months of the year will likely be found wanting

And so, Downsizing is the new feature project from writer/director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, the team behind Sideways. It follows the aforementioned Damon as Paul Safranek, a low-level occupational therapist*2 looking for a fresh start in life and opting for a revolutionary miniaturisation technique, whereby the newly-small subjects live in closed communities at a similarly reduced financial burden, with the added benefit of having a much smaller eco-footprint. When his wife backs out of the procedure at the last minute (that's not a spoiler, it's in the trailer), Paul has to adjust to his new life alone, hoping to fit into the new society with the ease with which it was all advertised. Small chance.

Credit where it's due, this is certainly an interesting premise for a movie. But Downsizing’s natural home is the 85-minute wry, quirky, introspective comedy with a yellow poster, mainly playing in the smaller, indie cinemas and finding its real audience on DVD/Streaming. So, not a 135 minute multiplex navel-gazeathon starring Matt Damon; a film that does have funny jokes, but which arrive so sporadically that they feel like less of a feature and more callbacks to previous revisions of the screenplay.

By the time that Paul works out that the the grass isn't necessarily greener on the other side (a promise literally spelled out by the set of the film at one point), the audience has realised that about 45 minutes earlier, on account of having thought the concept through for more than 30 seconds. It's entirely possible that the central character’s folly is intentional of course, but if that's the case then there’s no real moment of realisation to act as his redemption or turning-point - Paul just rolls with his de-escalating flow of poor choices until around two minutes from the end of the movie, by which point he’s really just resigned to not having a choice, anyway.

I know this seems like I’m being unduly harsh on what is essentially a social parable in a fantasy setting, but that metaphor is so heavy-handed that it becomes worn-out in the first act, and the fantasy-aspect is presented as (albeit inconsistent and hazily explained) science, throughout. Downsizing is occasionally intriguing from a cinematography point of view, managing to represent environments as miniature with very few visual reference points to the things which aren't. Although there are an equal number of scenes where everything in-shot is small, so just looks normal as a result*3.

Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier put in good turns at a 'character' level, but many of the film’s smaller, more incidental parts appear to be filled by people who have never acted before. That said, it’s a point of more genuine concern that Kristen Wiig gets her name on at least one version the poster when Hong Chau doesn’t*4. The former’s role is effectively a cameo, while the latter’s is positively scene-stealing, as Chau out-acts the rest of the cast combined. My main gripe on the performance front has to be Matt Damon, though. He's not outright awful, but as the audience's surrogate in this crazy world, all the wonder, excitement, fear, disappointment, discovery and transformation is supposed to be relayed through the central performer. Instead we get Matt Damon, the expressive equivalent of a Bunraku performance being led by wooden spoon a with face drawn on it in marker. Damon brings nothing to this screenplay. Nothing. And the completed film returns the favour, accordingly.

In terms of a surreal morality tale with a premise so brittle it falls apart the moment it's examined, Being John Malkovich already has this covered. And as a saccharine infused midlife crisis for the over-privileged 21st century white male, Ben Stiller was skateboarding past volcanos in 2013 (also with Kristen Wiig). But if all you're after is a deconstruction of the American dream, Damon himself is better in the still-troublesome Suburbicon

A neat idea, Downsizing gets worse the more the runtime grows.
Which is either faintly ironic or perfectly apt, I'm not sure which.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (remake), in both aspiration and execution.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Only if you're a hardcore Matt Damon fan.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Streaming; there won't be a lot of re-watch value in this.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
I shouldn't imagine so.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Amilyn Holdo is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Although given levels of grumbling afterward on social media and the consensus on a certain aggregate review-site, it appears that not many people are. [ BACK ]

*2 Not the low-level, unhappy call centre worker we see in the trailer. That's the shit job he gets after being made small. Now I'm aware that this revelation is technically a spoiler, but I think it's important to note that the trailer is selling a markedly different film to the one which actually plays out. [ BACK ]

*3 And let's not get into how some materials just wouldn't scale down to make their functionally-identical small-world versions. As I said, it’s inconsistent at best. [ BACK ]

*4 But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that on the main-version of the poster, neither Kristen Wiig nor Hong Chau's names appear, but Alexander Payne's does. Three times... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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