Thu, 08 Feb 2018
Running time 2hr 15min
CHAMPIONS and detractors alike have exhibited nothing but unanimity in rushing to dub Downsizing a ‘small film with big ambitions’ – in other words, the sort of offbeat, funny, inevitable little movie studios drop out of nowhere in a bid to hoover up awards when the established contenders (yes, we’re looking at you, Darkest Hour) fail to capitalise on the hype. Despite comedy institutions Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis having been tagged on to the project, it looked from the outset like a decidedly more grandiose picture than the light, irreverently human watch their presence would suggest, dealing in a very direct way with ecology, consumerism, alienation and desire; that couldn’t have been a bad thing, given that the 2018 Oscars slate is without the sort of urgent, uncertain movie you’d expect of these urgent, uncertain times.
Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, a man who could’ve been a contender, but has instead wound up an occupational therapist, struggling to make ends meet and generally dissatisfied with his lower-middle-class lot. Yet this is (an unspecified time in) the future, where advances in cellular engineering have enabled the ‘downsizing’ of people to the size of Coke cans, minimising humanity’s eco-footprint and mitigating overcrowding problems. At the urging of an old college bud (Sudeikis), Safranek and his wife (Wiig) resolve to get themselves shrunk; unfortunately, their plans for an idyllic retirement in Leisureland, one among the stately pleasure-domes erected for the downsized nouveau riche, are scuppered when the missus pulls out at the last minute, leaving Paul to grapple with his existential and masculine woes alone.
The film doesn’t exactly slip up in delivering on its mission statement – for those in want of some sanctimonious social commentary, it’s here, and there’s also ‘edgy’ humour for the family-with-older-teenagers crowd. But the premise’s caustic potential is lost as Downsizing goes tonally haywire around the second act, and it serves up its moral philosophy with a trauma-inducing lack of subtlety and communicative depth. It’s Idiocracy as reimagined by an off-form Woody Allen (with Dave Eggers on screenplay duties), juggling flat gags (downsized terrorists, Paul’s anxieties about the procedure’s effect on his wing-wang) with a satirical palette that consistently turns up as much genuinely novel and incisive analysis as your average Rage Against the Machine album. The film’s Big Important Message – “we’ve already destroyed our world, so let’s not, like, play God, maaaaan?” – seems to come straight out of the hemp-addled brain of an aging hippy; not only has it been done to death in sci-fi cinema, it’s as offensively misanthropic a proposal as you can get, director Alexander Payne striving to conceal its hateful implications beneath a sickly layer of Black Mirror-esque Mac-punk gloss (Leisureland is realised as a too-good-to-be-true, hedonistic playground where Paul parties with Christoph Waltz’s sordid millionaire).
Nevertheless, one cast effort in particular goes a long way in raising Downsizing above its narrative sclerosis. Hong Chau’s contribution has proven especially divisive, but her Vietnamese exile is a far more multifaceted character than has been suggested elsewhere, with Chau’s own vigour (coupled with a sympathetic late-film story turn) elevating the role above and beyond the status of a mere caricature; she comes fantastically close to outshining Damon, who, as ever, offers up an effort that is simply agreeable. Maybe the Trump era, with its endless torrent of fubars and depravity, does, indeed, mark the end of movie satire as we know it; Downsizing shows the genre to have lost much of its bite, though this critic is still holding out hope that the year ahead shall bring forth something more refined and challenging.