' ' Cinema Romantico: Downsizing

Thursday, July 05, 2018


“Downsizing” is a peculiar movie that manages to both intentionally and inadvertently live up to its title. Imagining a future where human beings, through a scientific process introduced in the movie’s prologue, can be miniaturized to but a few inches, director Alexander Payne builds out this world with great ingenuity and imagination for a while before eventually leaving that world’s specifics behind to explore nominally bigger themes. Those bigger themes, however, are merely used to make its main character, the mellifluously named Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) wake up and smell the coffee. Perhaps, but the coffee “Downsizing” brews feel more like a half-caff, a far-reaching journey that makes points, sure, but never cuts loose in doing so. Paul might wake up, but I felt like I was falling asleep.

Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) first get the inclination to downsize after encountering an old friend, Dave (Jason Sudeikis), who has gone through the procedure and come out of it raving. As the Safraneks explore the option, Payne very deliberately paints it less as an act of philosophical daring or scientific wonder, as the prologue suggests, than a pair of schmoes getting pitched a timeshare. Indeed, the downsizing community is called Leisure Land and its McMansions and chain restaurants paint an obvious picture of suburbia. Miniaturized, a middle class family instantly becomes millionaires. Who wouldn’t want to do it? If April and Frank Wheeler had lived in the era of Trump rather than Eisenhower, no doubt Leisure Land would have replaced their Paris pipe dream.

Rather than explore the disintegration of their marriage through the context of downsizing, however, the movie removes Audrey early when she opts out of the procedure at the last second and strands Paul in the land of the small on his own. He settles into a monotonous life without his spouse, only to be taken under the wing of the party animal, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), living upstairs, kicking off a run of the mill variation of one man’s search for meaning. The issues do not necessarily stem from the two scoops of vanilla ice cream that is another white man’s soul search as they do from the film’s inability to evince that soul search with any sizzles. This is emblemized in a Dusan hosted bacchanal where Paul pops a pill and then immediately tries puking it up. He fails, but the intent is what matters - never has a movie so ambitious seemed so square. “Downsizing” is like Terry Gilliam for the bake sale crowd.

Indeed, once the procedure is complete and the first few come-to-terms moments are out of the way, “Downsizing” virtually loses interest in the idea of being miniature. Instead, as Paul meets a Vietnamese dissident, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who was downsized against her will, the movie becomes a fairly blatant allegory for how the more things change the more they stay the same. Not necessarily a false lesson, mind you, but also not necessarily one that Payne finds way to spruce up despite his appealing premise. You could approximate the experience of watching this movie by watching a re-run of “The One That Could Have Been” two part “Friends” episode.

Paul’s quest continues in the presence of Ngoc, with whose down on her luck existence he willingly becomes entangled. Her character, as per frustrating tradition, is rarely allowed her own thoughts and feelings, existing to be his agent of change, though Chau’s fiery personality gives the character life anyway. Her every gesture and utterance seems to express exasperation with this stupid man in her presence, and both inadvertently and intentionally she urges him to stop feeling sorry for himself. She’s a bit like Ferris Bueller in that way, less complex than the person she is shepherding, but only because she seems to already know so much more. And she essentially implores Paul to stop and take a look around because he seems to be missing everything. But then, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” heeded its own advice, taking in the world around its characters even as its characters navigated it. Despite its premise, “Downsizing” rarely does the same, not until the end, and by then, well, the movie has already passed you by.

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