- Product Rating -

Downsizing

| January 1, 2018

Satire functions in its own realm in that tone, intentions, and objects of scorn have to be placed within very specific contexts, and if anything, enduring failed attempts provides notes on what not to do in one’s own work. I didn’t expect Downsizing to be such a train wreck, but the newest from Alexander Payne is one idea stretched over three movies, none of which are connected with each other in terms of scope, characters, or intentions. In what’s well over two hours and feels like more than three, it abandons its own ambitions over and over, making for an attention-deficit dreck that’s unsure of itself in pacing and tone, instead dragging its feet through repeated jokes and racist humor.

Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are a middle-class Ohama couple, the former an occupational therapist and the latter a nondescript housewife. With their lives not as successful as they anticipated, they sign up for a new and experimental process call downsizing, which irreversibly shrinks their bodies to be inches tall. Those who undergo the procedure live in their own tiny society, and the ability to get more use out of everyday objects should, in theory, make their lives easier and allow them to live in leisure. But as these stories go, the grass isn’t really that much greener.

Downsizing is one of those “idea movies”, one that has a central conceit that could allow for some fascinating social satire. The first 50 minutes or so are acceptable, managing to blend Payne’s brand of deadpan humor with the science fiction genre and making for an experience that’s intriguing if not actively engaging. It isn’t really sharp, but it presents several questions that fit snugly within the film’s mythology, ranging from economical to humanist in terms themes. It’s nice to see Payne venture outside of his comfort zone with its scope, genre, and visual effects, but as Downsizing progresses, it continues to slip around until it takes a nosedive to an unprecedented degree.

The movie is always at least a little messy. Its timeline jumps forward five years, another ten years, and then another year, and then another two weeks later on, disrupting the rhythm. However, rhythm isn’t the main issue when the exponential decay of the film’s self-awareness and skyrocketing of its pretensions make for one of the messiest movies in recent memory. Downsizing is really at least three different movies, and all of these movies are startlingly disconnected from each other. The comedy is largely one-note, the first half about small objects appearing large to tiny people and the latter half adopting a sense of humor so cringeworthy and racist that only accentuates the 135-minute runtime.

While a lot of Downsizing is bad in the traditional sense—its total lack of cohesion, its overblown duration—the second half is filled with white savior tropes and racist caricatures that feel like something out of the ‘50s that the most recent. What very well might be the most emblematic of these problems is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), an impoverished Vietnamese woman who goes under the protagonist’s wing, stealing prescription pills and spewing out broken English in a cartoonish Asian accent that sounds like something from Broken Blossoms. Payne’s script and direction does not side with the character, nor does it demonstrate any sort of sociopolitical awareness in how it depicts its characters. By the end of it all, it makes who is ostensibly an amiable character into a sidelined plot device, underscoring the ideologies of the film that anyone who is not a middle-class white man is, at best, a vessel to move the plot along.

Downsizing is a great example of what misguided satire can result in. What starts as a decent idea is ditched less than halfway through its runtime, Payne’s work showcasing virtually no understanding of how to stitch together its ambitions and its themes, resulting in one of the shoddiest moviegoing experiences of 2017. By the standards of an experienced writer/director, no less, Downsizing is an aggravating and boring half-baked idea, no teeth in its shouty mouth and no end goal in sight.

About the Author:

Senior year film student at Columbia College Chicago, Hollywood Film Festival pre-screener, and Best Social Media Presence for North Farmington High School's 2014 senior mock elections. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff".
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