Friday, 26 January 2018

Small beer: "Downsizing"

Whatever happened to Alexander Payne? At the time of 1996's Citizen Ruth and 1999's Election, the writer-director appeared just about the sharpest blade operating on the fringes of Hollywood, a waspish classicist in the Billy Wilder tradition who'd made it his day job to skewer the more prominent hypocrisies and absurdities of American life. Thereafter, Payne secured access to starrier names and Oscar tickets (About Schmidt, Sideways), and a complacency set in that would sound the death knell for even the sternest of satirists: set the fierce, confrontational deployment of Laura Dern in Ruth and Reece Witherspoon in Election against how Payne uses, say, Clooney in The Descendants, and one concludes that he's succumbed to that same sadsackery he used to diagnose and lampoon in his lumpy male protagonists. (In fairness, this post-millennial decline has not been as pronounced as that of Cameron Crowe, the previous writer-director to position himself in the Wilder lineage - there's nothing quite as terrible as Elizabethtown on this CV - but more like watching a deflating balloon.)

Payne's sputtering new Toytown fantasy Downsizing has the kind of workable premise that an Andrew Niccol type might have carried forward into the new century: to help reduce their impact on the planet (and stretch their income a good deal further), everyday Americans - including Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig's Paul and Audrey Safranek - elect to have themselves surgically shrunk to the dimensions of Lego characters, thereafter to reside in the mini-McMansion splendour of Leisureland, a corporate-built and operated model village. For a while, all is fine; a nimble first act milks this set-up for all the jokes of scale Paramount Pictures money can buy. Patients are wheeled into the shrinking chamber on full-sized gurneys, and are wheeled out on tiny handcarts, having first been scooped up on spatulas like freshly baked cookies; trinkets and forget-me-nots that were relatively small over here (wedding bands, hospital crackers, flower heads) re-emerge as ginormous, room-filling over there; more subtly clever is the way conversations between big people and small people are miked and mixed to reflect their difference in stature.

The problems arise once Damon's Paul has come round from the procedure, and we begin to explore this brave new world not with wide eyes, but almost exclusively from the jaded perspective of a schlubby middle-aged white bro. The fleet-footed progression of the first act gives way to dead-end dates, an embarrassing trip sequence that starts with Damon hunched over the lavatory bowl and somehow succeeds in going downhill from there, and scenes in which Paul slowly falls under the spell of his Vietnamese cleaning lady (Treme's Hong Chau, working adorably hard to humanise a deeply queasy screenwriter's daydream). A sympathetic soul might view Payne and his usual writing cohort Jim Taylor as victims of the rapid changes American movies and society are presently undergoing. Had they turned in this script around the time of 1996's high-concept midlife crisis comedy Multiplicity, or even as late as 2004's Spanglish, a white liberal guilt handwringer that provided a change of pace for Payne's one-time associate Adam Sandler, few would have batted an eyelid - certainly not those middle-aged Caucasian executives experiencing variants of that shrinkage Payne and Taylor are describing here. In 2018, however, Downsizing emerges as a pallid relic of that old world, a last twitch of the collective white male muscle memory.

It's not a terrible idea that Paul Safranek should enter the supposedly utopian Leisureland with the same doubts and fears he might have had in the real world; it's just that, as realised here, those doubts and fears aren't anywhere near as funny or revealing as they needed to be to sustain a two-hour-plus movie. What follows are a run of cutesy sitcom stand-offs in which Damon appears bemused amid a swelling sea of kooks, clumsy dollops of editorial handwringing over the state white men have left the planet in, and a final-act escape by boat to some mini-Scandinavian idyll that owes an obvious debt to The Truman Show and Ben Stiller's Walter Mitty redo. Somewhere along the route of this (hawks, spits) "journey", the film stops making sense on even a basic, nuts-and-bolts level. Again, it's not an unclever revelation that this Little America should hide in its shadows a Little Mexico - from where it sources a steady stream of little little people to cook and clean and mow its tiny lawns - but it's never clear why its residents should turn to the Damon character (real world occupation: shift manager at a steak processing plant) as an osteopath and prosthesis technician.

Suddenly, the film's whole structure starts to seem wobbly, arbitrary. Abandoning the big world/little world contrast that pepped up those early scenes - Audrey, whose own existential crisis surely merited equal exploration, is never heard from again - Downsizing grows flabby around its middle, stuffed with "larger than life" (i.e. intensely irritating) characters set in place solely to nudge our hero along his redemption arc, before giving into exactly that New Agey, watching-the-sunset nonsense the younger, hungrier Payne would once have spotted in his dappier characters and mercilessly kebabbed, and then shrugging its way towards no sort of an ending whatsoever. You come away from the film with the impression that only one person connected with the project needed to downsize, and it wasn't Paul Safranek: this toothless non-event is what happens when a well-meaning but weak-willed filmmaker enters into a system that affords him all the money and stars in the world while insisting he keep up a steady stream of phoney smiles, surgery-poster homilies and limply happy endings in return. Go back to Indieland, Alexander? Please?

Downsizing is now playing in cinemas nationwide. 

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