Downsizing (2017)

Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor

So many movies, at the surface, on paper, are supposed to be great movies. Take Downsizing for example. Written and directed by Alexander Payne, whose blend of drama and comedy has brought such great films as NebraskaThe Descendants, and Sideways. It stars bankable Hollywood star Matt Damon, is being released during awards season in an effort to drum up good will, and features an inventive and, admittedly intriguing, plot. This should be a good movie. At worst it could be enjoyable yet forgettable. Unfortunately for those involved, this is not a forgettable movie. Rather, its demise and deficiencies are rather memorable for their laughable follies and misguided themes. Sometimes movies that are supposed to be good on paper are just the opposite. Not good.

Paul Safranek (Mat Damon) is just another average American (a standard Payne protagonist) who lives and works in Omaha, Nebraska as an occupational therapist. Unhappy in his life, he along with his wife (Kristen Wiig) make the decision to pursue a new Norwegian technology which shrinks humans, diminishing your carbon footprint while making your dollar stretch a whole lot more than before. At the 11th hour, Paul’s wife backs out, leaving Paul to fend for himself as a small man in a big world, where he befriends a well connected playboy (Christoph Waltz) and a famous downsizer from Vietnam Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), who works as a maid. In his newfound misery, Paul manages to find purpose and happiness with his new world and new companions.

I found a lot of what Payne seemed to be going for here similar to The Descendants insomuch as this quickly becomes a film about the fact that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Payne often dwells with themes dealing with happiness and how to attain it. In Paul’s life, he thinks if only he had more money, more means, but upon descending upon his new life he finds that to be patently false. There is much more to life than simply money. Payne is actually dealing with very relevant themes throughout, but the problem quickly becomes that he is dealing with too many themes, and he presents them too thinly, haphazardly switching back and forth with no real focus. It all amounts to a film which is hard to decipher what it might be getting at.

Add to this foible the fact that the plot ultimately goes nowhere fast with forced relationships and major leaps taken by the screenplay. Much of the film is predicated on way too convenient coincidences, most notably the third act which is supposed to grant the protagonist his meaningful purpose and subsequent realization of what makes him happy. These leaps are often laughable, as the film jumps from point A to point C while skipping out on any organic or natural progression of narrative or character development. Meanwhile, the performances are fairly universally off-base, causing unwarranted laughs throughout. As I said, Payne often has a strange sense of humor throughout his films, but here, the humor seems misguided and awkward. I rarely mustered a smile during the moments clearly meant to be comedic.

I hate it when an interesting concept is introduced only to be discarded later in the film, or completely underutilized as it is here. I was fascinated by the concept of shrinking, and the communities of downsizers, and they motivations for making this leap, whether for environmental or personal reasons. There is a great mockumentary somewhere in this idea. However, Payne inexplicably veers off course in favor of telling a bland, uninspired romance between two actors who couldn’t have less chemistry. This film has seen a lot of mixed reactions, both good and bad. Count me in the bad camp, and truly amazed at anyone who garnered any kind of substance from watching it. If it wasn’t for the interesting concept behind the movie, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this one of the year’s worst?

** 1/2 – Average

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