Sunday, 31 December 2017

Downsizing (2017) - Movie Review
The plot: As a means to combat overpopulation, a group of Norwegian scientists have come up with a ground-breaking solution: Literally shrinking the population down to a height of only five inches. Suburban couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig), unsatisfied with their current living conditions, decide to take part in the procedure… only for Audrey to back out at the last minute. Now shrunken and alone, Dave takes part in this brand new miniature society, only to discover that even this scenario has its drawbacks.

Damon has all of one emotion for the entire film: Being amazed at things. His position as the entry point character for the audience apparently translated into him just going “wow!” at the strange sights and people he sees as a result of the downsizing; it’s like Owen Wilson was the original choice for the role, but he backed out too quickly for a rewrite to fit someone else. It’s rare that a lead actor comes across this much like a tourist. Wiig’s role is thankfully minor, as she is so bland that the idea of her being a main character for the whole thing would be rather disconcerting. Christoph Waltz as Paul’s neighbour Dusan is rather fun in how much he does not give a fuck, taking aloofness so far that he ends up being the real entry point for the audience; bonus points for a moment where he basically photobombs a scene where he has no lines.
Hong Chau as a persecuted Vietnamese activist is the strongest in terms of character, being the closest thing we get to someone actually having character in the first place, and even through the broken English, she does the best at delivering some of the film’s more pointed lines. Jason Sudeikis is pretty much wasted, Udo Kier as Waltz’ hetero life-mate just makes me want a buddy comedy with them both as the leads, and Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern pop in for a painfully awkward cameo.

This film has an incredibly strange sense of humour, and I don’t mean that in any of the fun ways. A lot of it plays off of the main premise of downsizing, resulting a good chunk of the film involving some kind of giant prop to get laughs. Some of the jokes are front-and-centre, like Paul having just one giant rose in a vase on his table, while others are background humour, like a framed picture of a normal-sized one dollar bill. Regardless of the visibility, though, this kind of prop comedy? It is incredibly old hat by this point, and with how upfront the film can get about how it admits that these jokes are kind of silly to begin with, it can’t even reach comedy via irony with these moments. 
The written jokes are quite inconsistent, ranging from genuine laughs to just spasmodic cringe, and it even gets into honest-to-God sitcom territory at one point. This is where Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern come in as part of a presentation for one of the downsizing communities, employing the sort of “Get it? Because women go shopping a lot?!” hackery that makes me surprised that no-one from The Big Bang Theory was involved in the writing process. Where this gets weird is that, because of how cloying the humour can get, anytime someone on-screen says the word “small” or “big” in regular conversation, it feels like a setup for another stupid moment… only for it to just be a benign part of the dialogue. These jokes are so bad, they induce humour-related PTSD in their audience.

Getting away from the dire attempts at comedy here, this film actually does have quite a bit going for it as far as its premise. Writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor go for a proper social sci-fi tone with how they handle the high-concept idea at its core, and when it uses it to more critical ends, it yields some interesting results. For a start, there’s some very gratifying details included as to what the downsizing process involves, including the preparation required like the removal of dental fillings and any body hair. For another, the way that the script goes into the implications and possible consequences for such a procedure gaining ground results in some solid world-building, highlighting how the process ostensibly creates two separate classes of people: Big and small.

And for a third, expanding on that last point, the film doesn’t use this as a means for commentary on racism. Even beyond the main cast, this is a very ethnically diverse collection of actors, so it’s kept grounded in commentary on social class. A good move, considering the targets pointed out are more universal than being restricted to just a single subset of humanity. It portrays the downsizing process as an easy excuse for the upper-middle class to start off fresh, echoing the White Flight commentary of Damon’s earlier turn in Suburbicon, and pointing out how this attitude of consuming and then abandoning it for whatever new territory is found is a very unfortunately human process.

And then the film takes a fall. A big one. One where you can literally pinpoint the second that it completely goes off the rails. Said second is the moment right after Paul takes a pill at one of Dusan’s parties, featuring a drug trip sequence that is so visually unlike everything else here as to be quite jarring. This happens less than halfway through the film, and from then on, the film completely loses steam. It stops continuing to extrapolate on its main idea and its potential as social commentary, and starts importing a whole host of other ideas like political prisoners and survivalist cults and just mashing them together until the ultimate point of all this becomes frustratingly obtuse.
I’m quickly growing tired of seeing this exact same ‘quantity over quality’ approach to high-concept storytelling, but this might be the most painful example yet because it actually starts out with promise. Not just promise, but promise that the first act showed a shaky but still learned ability to fulfil. However, once the film takes its first of many hard right-turns, that all fades away and all that’s left is a bunch of incredibly awkward moments that never feel like they’re here for any reason other than making up for the writers running out of ideas with its initial premise.

All in all, this is a promising start that ends up collapsing into a complete train wreck. The acting is rather inconsistent, the comedy is amazingly antiquated, and while the writing begins strong as far as fleshing out its ideas, it starts to lose steam less than halfway through and ends up running entirely on fumes by the end. I’ve been anticipating this film since I discovered it would be Alexander Payne’s next feature after the excellent Nebraska; calling this a disappointment would be to disregard just how plain incompetent a lot of this is.

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