DOWNSIZING

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Alexander Payne

Stars: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, Hong Chau, Rolf Lassgard, Ingjerd Egeberg, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, Margot Martindale, James Van Der Beek, Maribeth Monroe, Mary Kay Place, Joaquim de Almeida.

It’s a small world after all?

Image result for downsizing movie images

In the not too distant future, Norwegian scientist Dr Jorgen Asbjonsen (Rolf Lassgard) has come up with a radical solution for a world concerned with overpopulation and rapidly diminishing resources. He and his colleagues have figured out a safe way to shrink people down to 12 centimetres, thus reducing their footprint in the world.

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), a mild mannered occupational therapist suffering from a midlife crisis, and his unhappy wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to allow themselves to be shrunk and live in Leisureland, a homogenous, fully-planned, dome-covered, utopian micro community with golf courses, swimming pools and shopping centres. But what seems like an egalitarian society in the brochures and advertising material soon shows its darker side and highlights the worst excesses of American culture and its rampant consumerism.  Most people still dwell in their McMansions, albeit on a smaller scale, and still live their excessive lifestyles. There is a clear social divide between the haves and the have-nots in this miniature environment – there are the rich people who live in luxury homes and apartments, while the menial workers and cleaning staff live in a walled off enclave, in squalid, cramped apartment buildings on the edge of the city.

When Audrey decides not to go through with the process, Paul moves out of his luxurious house into an apartment building. There he meets his boisterous, hard partying Serbian upstairs neighbour Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and his slightly sinister brother Konrad (Udo Kier). Paul also becomes obsessed with Mirkovic’s Vietnamese maid and house cleaner, the dynamic but grating Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, from Inherent Vice, etc), a dissident refugee and amputee with a prosthetic leg. She challenges Paul to see life from the perspective of the impoverished menial workers. And before long he is heading off on a journey of self-discovery to Norway to visit the original miniature community.

An interesting concept that had plenty of opportunity for rich satire and social commentary drives this risky but ultimately uneven satire from director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways and Nebraska, etc). He has cowritten the film with his long-time collaborator Jim Taylor, but it quickly runs out of steam and ideas and much of the social critique falls flat. There is an episodic quality to much of what follows, and the film moves from the broader comedy of the opening scenes to a somewhat more bleak and pessimistic tone. The moralising is laid on with a trowel. And there are a lot of subplots here, but many go nowhere of interest, which leads to a sense of frustration. The film loses inspiration and ideas long before we leave for Norway. Downsizing is one of Payne’s lesser efforts, and it seems as if even he wasn’t sure in what direction he wanted to take the concept.

Films like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace used the concept of shrinking people in far more inventive and entertaining fashion.

Kudos must go to Stefania Cella and special effects supervisor James Price for their inventive production design though. And there are some great special effects in the early scenes when we are first introduced to the pioneering first people to be shrunk to miniature size. Regular cinematographer Phedon Papamichael cleverly juxtaposes both real size people with miniature people in the same shot.

Damon’s performance as Paul is solid enough, and he suffuses his character with an essential decency, but he often seems uncomfortable with the sort of down trodden character who has become a staple of Payne’s films. Chau delivers a lively turn here and her scene stealing performance is easily the best thing in the film, even though her character is annoying, and I felt like strangling her on several occasions. Waltz plays yet another variation of his familiar screen persona, and although he brings a sense of energy and mischief to his performance he is almost becoming a parody of himself. There is plenty of droll interplay between Waltz and Kier that provides some brief spark. There are cameos from the likes of Jason Sudeikis, James Van Der Beek, Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern that add little to the overall material though.

Downsizing runs for an overly long 132 minutes and ultimately it becomes boring and dull the longer it goes on. Maybe a bit of downsizing in the editing suite may have made for a better film.
★★☆

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