2017, Alexander Payne movies, Christoph Waltz, Comedy-Drama, Instrospective Films, Little People, LL Soares Reviews, Science Fiction, Scientific Advancements, Scientific Experiments, The Future, Tiny Humans 0
Movie Review by LL Soares
I am a big fan of director Alexander Payne. This is the guy who made such great films as ELECTION (1999), ABOUT SCHMIDT (2004), SIDEWAYS (2004), THE DESCENDANTS (2011), and NEBRASKA (2013). He’s probably one of the best directors ever when it comes to telling stories about growing old in America (especially see ABOUT SCHMIDT and NEBRASKA). He’s a filmmaker with human stories to tell, and a strong sense of compassion. I look forward to each new movie.
DOWNSIZING (2017) is his newest film, and it was already getting a lot of buzz on the festival circuit before it was released theatrically here. It takes a science fiction concept that we’ve seen previously in movies like THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957), and HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS (1989), and puts it in the center of a thoughtful drama about man’s place in the world.
In the not-too-distant future, Norwegian scientist Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard, A MAN CALLED OVE, 2015) discovers a way to shrink animals and people to a fraction of their size. It’s a curiosity at first, as people watch news stories about the discovery. But a decade later, it becomes an optional lifestyle choice. Shrinking people, commonly called “downsizing,” is a possible cure for overpopulation, as well as a way to shrink our collective carbon footprint (smaller people use less resources, and create less waste).
At a high school reuinion, schlubby physical therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, star of the BOURNE movies, GOOD WILL HUNTING, 1977, and THE MARTIAN, 2015) sees that his old friend, Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis, COLLOSAL, 2016, and WE’RE THE MILLERS, 2013) and his wife have gotten “the treatment.” Dave talks about all the ways it’s improved his life (in what turns into more of a sales pitch than a reunion party), and Paul starts to really consider it. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig, formerly of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and star of BRIDESMAIDS, 2011) are in a lot of debt, and could really use a change in their lives. The more he thinks about it, the more Paul is convinced this is a real second chance, especially when he and and Audrey learn that their modest savings will translate into millions of dollars once they’ve been downsized.
So, they go through with it. It’s quite a commitment, financially (they have to sell everything they own) and medically (they have to go through a rigorous process that includes removing all non-organic items from their bodies, especially tooth fillings). When Paul wakes up a much smaller person, he finds out that Audrey chickened out and ran away. He’s driven to their version of a Barbie Dreamhouse alone, realizing that his life is going to change more dramatically than even he thought.
Starting a new life, Paul becomes friendly with a neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz, of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, 2009, DJANGO UNCHAINED, 2012, and the underrated BIG EYES, 2014), a Serbian businessman who gives lavish parties. Dusan can tell Paul is uptight and depressed, and wants to help him. Paul also meets one of the women who clean Dusan’s apartment, a Vietnamese woman named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, from INHERENT VICE, 2014, and the HBO series TREME, 2011-2013 and BIG LITTLE LIES, 2017), who is a former celebrity – back when Paul was “big,” he saw a story about her on the news. She was one of several activist/prisoners who were shrunk by the Vietnamese government and shipped to the U.S. in a television box to get rid of them. When she was found, she was the only survivor of the group.
Now, she’s a fiesty businesswoman who runs a cleaning crew and lives in the poor section of town, the part most residents of “Leisureland” (which is the name of the “small” community Paul lives in) never see, just outside the walls, which is pretty much just big shipping crates turned into public housing.
When he tries to help Ngoc Lan, who has mistaken him for a doctor, Paul slowly finds a purpose for his new life. Meanwhile, Dusan and his friend, Konrad (Udo Kier, who has been in over 200 films, including such classics as MARK OF THE DEVIL, 1970; FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, 1973 and BLOOD FOR DRACULA, 1974 [aka ANDY WARHOL’S FRANKENSTEIN & DRACULA]; and SUSPIRIA, 1977, just to name a few), a former sea captain, try to get Paul to lighten up, by including him on a “secret mission” of theirs to Norway.
DOWNSIZING is a movie about small people and big ideas, and I liked that it wasn’t afraid to shy away from the fact that even in a new frontier, there’s still a class system based on money. While I liked Payne’s new film, my overall reaction was one of disappointment. I have come to count on Payne for giving us interesting films that really have something to say about the human condition. DOWNSIZING does that, but nothing it has to say is all that surprising. Part of the problem for me is the casting of Matt Damon as Paul. I’ve never been a big fan of Damon’s, and while he has shined in a few roles over the years, my reaction to most of his movies has been something akin to boredom. By striving to be an everyman kind of character, Damon often comes off as extremely bland, and he does so here. A more interesting (and dynamic) actor would have done more with the role of Paul. He’s “ordinary” to the degree that there’s nothing about him that I really felt a connection with. I’ve really grown tired of seeing him in movies, and DOWNSIZING doesn’t change that.
Christoph Waltz, who always injects energy into a film, is good here as Dasan, except that it’s a fairly shallow character. He’s a rich European guy who likes to have fun. We get it. He’s not much else. And while it was great seeing Udo Keir here (I’m a huge fan of the guy), he’s pretty low-key as Dasan’s sidekick Konrad. Whenever Waltz is onscreen, at least the movie gets a slight bump, and give us a nice counterpoint to sad sack Paul, but it’s not the needle full of adrenaline that this movie needs to get its heart racing.
The only real adrenaline we get is Hong Chau’s performance as Ngoc Lan Tran. She’s pushy and loud and no-nonsense, and she walks the fence between being incredibly likeable and incredibly annoying, with her stilted English and constantly barking orders at Paul. But for the most part, she falls into the likeable category, and she’s the main source of electricity in this movie. If her character wasn’t here, the movie could have lapsed into tedium. She’s the most fully developed and human character here, and she owns every scene she’s in.
But that still leaves a void where Damon’s Paul should be.
And the movie gets a bit preachy at times, which struck me as odd for an Alexander Payne movie. I mean, I’m sure there have been times in his movies previously when he’s been preachy, but never as obviously as he is here. Between that and Paul’s blandness, there are moments when DOWNSIZING is almost off-putting.
But in the end, Payne is a professional, and I left the theater feeling slightly satisfied. But the feeling didn’t last long, and it felt more like a snack than a meal.
Overall, I think DOWNSIZING is the weakest of Payne’s films that I’ve seen. There were moments I liked a lot, and it makes some interesting points, but on the whole is a rather underwhelming experience. I give it two and a half knives out of five.
© Copright 2017 by LL Soares
LL Soares gives DOWNSIZING ~ two and a half knives.