TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW: Alexander Payne Bites Off Too Big a Chunk in Miniature Dramedy DOWNSIZING
Downsizing is perhaps best summarized, from beginning to end, as a movie about what happens when uber-liberal, earth-loving Norwegian hippies discover new technologies. The film, about a world in which humans can shrink themselves to no more than five inches small, opened the Venice Film Festival two days ago and just played to a full house at the Telluride Film Festival. It is classic Alexander Payne: a pastiche of clever observations with plucky acting, a witty and even insightful view into human nature, but ultimately an unsatisfying, self-congratulatory, and completely unsubtle exercise.
Matt Damon is Paul Safranek, a middle-aged, middle America guy who cannot make ends meet or make his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) happy. Luckily, only a decade and a half prior, Norwegian scientists, concerned with overpopulation, deforestation, and species extinction, found a way to shrink living beings into a fraction of themselves, and with that their carbon footprint. The experiment had unforeseen consequences naturally—because everything costs so little to little people, shrinking yourself can immediately blow up your net worth by over one hundred-fold. No longer will you be having difficulties buying what you want, you will be rolling in the rich.
The premise is interesting as far as it goes and the movie quickly grabs your attention as you curiously explore the world of the shrunken and the transition from large to small. With the always quirky Wiig leading the at-times-wooden Damon along, Downsizing makes you genuinely curious as to where it is all going.
It soon becomes clear, however, that the movie is not itself sure. Stripped of the lofty and inventive new tropes that the burgeoning technology permits the screenwriter to use, Downsizing is left to answer the harder question: now what? But the film provides so many answers, that it ends up not answering at all.
At the superficial level, there is commentary on how humans abuse technology and discovery to tergiversate its original purpose—from saving the planet to enriching one’s self. A good chunk of runtime is also devoted to a somewhat fatalistic view of humankind, that old habits die hard and even in this seemingly idyllic land of Lilliputians, greed and selfishness lead to pain and suffering. Just as the rich get richer in the aptly-termed Leisureville, so too do the poor get poorer. And so on.
Downsizing is quickly sinking, grasping at all sorts of themes and messages to extend its life once the luster of the clever premise has worn off, when a pair of fantastic actors enter the picture to partially save the day. Christoph Waltz, that indomitable master of accents appears as Dusan, an aging playboy, one who profits even from the small people by thinking big and parties to excess and debauch, much to the chagrin of his new little neighbor, Paul. And then there is the previously-unknown Hong Chau, who plays Ngoc Lan, a Vietnamese dissident that was downsized against her will by her oppressive government and ended up a maid to the degraded partiers, including Dusan himself.
But then Downsizing returns to its questionable practices. Through Ngoc, Paul learns the value of caring for others, the importance of seeing the bigger picture, and the “value in the little stuff.” Not subtle, not even a slight bit. Kudos to Mr. Payne for finding actual archival footage of Mexican telenovelas to play for the poor immigrants that have gathered in the ghettoized outskirts of Leisureland. His use of authentic Spanish is also welcome and shows what we already know, that he is a careful and methodical filmmaker.
Authenticity and good intentions cannot rid Downsizing of the stench it pours upon itself, though, by trying to preach too much about good values, and fine morals, and nice breeding, all while making the Ngoc Lan character a cartoonish, shrill Asian woman. Still, Ms. Chau does a superb job with a thankless role—knocking out of the park one particular scene as the film enters its dragging third act. And Waltz as Dusan remains a breath of fresh air, injecting sufficient cynicism about all that surrounds him to at least let you take the entire exercise a bit less seriously. He is a gem, and demonstrates so once more with yet another knockout performance.
Downsizing is a typical Alexander Payne film. Fans of his work, Nebraska, The Descendants, will eat it up. He is undoubtedly clever and undeniably insightful. Few filmmakers manage to jar you from the serious moment to the mundane with things as simple as an overgrown musical instrument at the right time, or the precise use of four letter expletives. But the flaws that at least this critic has always observed in his work remain true and strong in his latest film. Restraint is not his forte, and sticking to one or two themes instead of twenty-five has always made his movies jarring. How ironic, indeed, that a movie about downsizing, about looking at the little stuff, made itself so self-important and grandiose that it sort of ended up in a no-man’s land in between.
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