31 Days of Film: Downsizing
I vividly remember the first time I saw the Downsizing trailer. I remember thinking that it was a well thought out concept with a good cast and a talented director, but something just seemed off. I could never put my finger on it, even after seeing the trailer dozens of times over the next few months before the film’s release as to what was wrong with the Alexander Payne’s newest ambitious comedy. But when the film came out and it got absolutely ravaged by critics on top of coming out in a packed movie month I just never bothered to watch it. But recently a friend of mine told me that Downsizing was a victim of critical one-upmanship to see who could have the most disaffected and belittling review of the film. That friend told me that Downsizing, far from being one of 2017’s worst failures, was yet another triumphant masterpiece from a visionary director.
That person is no longer a friend of mine. Downsizing is far from the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but it is the film that manages to do the least with the most. A world class cast, excellent concept, a talented screenwriter, and a visionary director. And somehow what was produced was an over-long, unfunny, mess of a film. It’s unclear if Payne was trying to say too much or too little in Downsizing but whatever the cause the effect is an unfocused script that jumps from tone to tone as fast as it cycles through plot points.
Paul Safranek is an occupational therapist—the most boring job on planet Earth—and Paul Safranek leads an equally dull life outside of work. His wife Audrey wants to live in a McMansion but also is aware that they don’t have the money for it, which doesn’t stop her taking Paul on tours to see homes he could never buy them. Then after a series of time skips through a dozen or so years Paul and Audrey are getting downsized. At this point this is where the movie that anyone that saw the trailer or read the brief synopsis ends and a journey down a bleak and confusing rabbit hole begins. Audrey bails on Paul in the middle of the biggest decision of his life then divorces him and takes all his money so that he has to work an even shittier job than he did when he was fully sized. I could keep running down the plot but I think you get the point. The climax of the film is that some of the small people have committed to an equally permanent life decision and Paul has to choose between walking into basically the center of the fucking Earth or spending the rest of his life with a Vietnamese activist he’s known for a hot minute.
It’s possible Damon’s performance is a good one but his character is so poorly constructed and all over the place that it’s hard to get a grasp on exactly what Payne and Damon were trying to get from this character. The characters that come in and out of Paul’s story are equally poorly constructed and despite all being played by excellent actors from Christoph Waltz to Jason Sudeikis there isn’t enough to any of them to lend any emotional weight to the narrative. Payne’s biggest sin in Downsizing is abandoning the compelling world he created in order to partially tell the stories of the unimaginative characters he put in it.
As a post-apocalyptic allegory Downsizing doesn’t have enough bite to gets its point across and as a comedy its neither rye nor witty enough to satisfy. Much like Payne’s stance on all the film’s issues Downsizing hovers unsatisfactorily in the middle. I’m sure at one point there was a brilliant film in here but something along the way went wrong, and very wrong at that. Many will give Alexander Payne credit for effort, and he deserves it, this is not the trite of Michael Bay or Adam Sandler that have as much disdain for their audience as they do the artform. No, Downsizing is a valiant effort for sure. But it is partially knowing how close we may have been to brilliance that makes the final product all the more bitter.