Downsizing (2017)

Directed by Alexander Payne


The only reason Downsizing isn’t my least favorite film of the year is because I chose to see Geostorm a few bad decisions ago.

What makes Downsizing so disappointing is the utter blandness of a film with an intriguing comic premise and a hell of a lot of talent behind the production.  Alexander Payne is the director of films such as ElectionAbout SchmidtSidewaysThe Descendants and Nebraska.  These are all human comedies in which much of the humor is derived from pathetic male characters.  Something like Election is a little more broad, but otherwise these are comedies that deal with realistic characters.  The humor is often satirizing, mocking behavior and ego.

So Downsizing, set in a world in which humans are now able to be shrunk down to the size of toy action figures, is a leap into a new world.  In a movie whose premise hinges on a drastic difference from our own world, there is a need to spend time establishing that world, thus taking time away from establishing the characters.  In Downsizing we spend too much time establishing how and why this “downsizing” became a thing, and then characters like the ones played by Matt Damon are very under served as a result.

In Payne’s other films we recognize the world, meaning he can spend time highlighting the strange behavior and quirks of his protagonists.  His films are character driven, and their success depends entirely on the appeal of the protagonist, even if that character is meant to be unlikeable.  Downsizing is a departure because it should be a plot-driven movie based on the film’s hook (which focuses on the world, not on the character), but Payne and writer Jim Taylor attempt to make it some kind of character study.  The problem is that Matt Damon’s Paul Safranek is possibly the most boring character in any of Alexander Payne’s movies.

The film can be broken up into three distinct acts, and it attempts to raise a few interesting points.  Each of the three acts can almost be defined by a decision made society at large, and then the film offers a one note commentary on this decision.  The first one is the decision to offer downsizing and the real reason people take part in it.  The idea is to help save the planet by reducing waste, but everyone who “goes small” does so for a more selfish reason, the perks.  For Paul Safranek and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), their $100,000+ turns into $12.5 million.  In one of the many small communities, just about each and every person can afford to live in their own mansion.

In the second act we discover that this supposed utopia somehow still has people living in extreme poverty.  This ‘perfect’ way of living still manages to overlook a large portion of the community, emphasizing the selfishness of the wealthy who have decided to go small.

In act three we leave the small community, Leisureland, and head to the first ever small community in Norway.  In this act we meet again with the man who started it all, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen.  He’s a sullen scientist, shaking his head at humanity’s harm on the world, resulting in an apparent confirmation that the world will end in a couple hundred years.  Asbjørnsen’s plan, for some reason, is to take his community to a small bunker deep within earth.  This leaves Safranek with a choice, to join the humans who plan to keep humanity alive or to stick with his ‘friends’ and help those in need, even if we’re all doomed anyways.

Okay, so each of these acts, each one kind of its own short story, has merit on its own, but as a whole it’s just a mess.  Tonally the film is all over the place.  In one moment it’s a comedy, a fairly straightforward satire, then it’s a story about a sad man’s apathy (Damon), before it becomes a story that forces Paul to examine what life means when you’re faced with your own death… except that he’s never in a position that forces him to choose anything.  The plot is contrived, the romance (there’s a romance) isn’t at all plausible, and the premise is almost completely unexplored while big questions appear to be raised without any real dive into the complications of such questions.

Downsizing tries to do too much and is absolutely frustrating as a result.  Because you want to leave the audience with a final image that emphasizes what the story is all about, this film is apparently all about Paul’s quest for meaning in his own life.  Except that most of the story isn’t at all about this and certainly not the beginning.

Okay, let me try to break it down more clearly.

If you want to make this film a story about one man’s quest for meaning in his own life, fine, that’s great.  But the movie starts with a prologue introducing the discovery of this downsizing technology, and it’s a few scenes before we even meet our protagonist.  At the start of the movie he is not a sad-sack man looking for meaning.  He’s taking care of his sick mother, then we fast-forward ten years to when he is a married occupational therapist who seems to have a wholesome, even if a little boring, life.  The only indication that things aren’t perfect is that he and his wife can’t quite afford the house of their dreams.  Great.  But this doesn’t set the stage for a character who is in desperate need of a life fix.  It’s not until Paul undergoes the irreversible transition that he learns his wife didn’t go through with it.  So now he’s screwed, and they get a divorce, making him the sad man that the film’s ending implies he was the entire time.

Another small quibble… we see the technicians shave all the hair off of a person’s body in preparation for the transition, and they only do so once the person is unconscious.  Audrey calls Paul to let him know that she didn’t go through with it, and we see that her head and one eyebrow is shaved.  So she just happened to wake up after anesthesia?  It doesn’t matter, but it’s irritating because it doesn’t quite add up.

So again, this is a story about a man searching for meaning in his life, but it’s not until probably forty or so minutes into the film that he reaches a point at which he decides he needs to find meaning.

And after his transition we fast forward another year.  Then the rest of the story happens, and that’s when we meet the other important side characters.  There’s Paul’s outgoing neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and Dusan’s housekeeper Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) who plays a fairly offensive stereotype.  She’s a famous Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will.  The fact that she now lives in a supposed utopia and lives in squalor is the point, that she can be so easily overlooked.

But Paul takes an interest in her for no clear reason.  He offers to help fix her artificial leg, and when he mistakenly breaks it he finds himself acting as her helper, doing all the jobs she can no longer do until she gets a new leg.  During this process he sees just how many people she helps (because she’s a good person), but his main goal is to get away from her.

So Dusan assists him, making up a story that Paul needs to accompany him to the original small community in Norway.  It’s a lie, even if the trip is real, to get Paul out from under his guilty obligation.  Then Ngoc reveals that she has an invitation to the community, so she will go with them.

Okay, so now they’re headed to Norway for a friendly visit because the trip was made up as a ruse to get Paul out of his series of chores.  But then it turns out that the Norway community just so happens to be on the verge of abandoning their village and moving into a bunker?  Forever?

It’s absurd.  The movie attempts to explain it by having Paul reference the long list of coincidences that make up the plot.  He uses this as a reason that he must join this underground community, even as his friends and lover protest.

Look, Paul Safranek is a sad man, not unlike other Alexander Payne characters.  He’s filled with a sense of entitlement and looking for a purpose because he has none.  Great, it’s all a joke, except that the film ends on a self-indulgent moment meant to underscore the importance of Paul’s journey despite the bulk of the story making light of his attempts at self-fulfillment.

I feel so scattered because I can’t keep track of everything this movie tries to be.  Let me again try to simplify it.

The movie tries to be:

  1. a story about a sad man’s quest for self-fulfillment but…
    1. the movie makes light of Paul’s quest, treating it as a joke before the end tries too hard to imbue this quest with real emotion.  It doesn’t land.
  2. a satire of a materialistic society but…
    1. the character who most clearly represents this, Dave (Jason Sudeikis) is abandoned before the midpoint of the film.  There are other characters played by big actors (Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern) who are similarly abandoned once this phase of the story is over.
  3. a commentary on class divide but…
    1. the story never investigates the surprising poverty that has infiltrated Leisureland.  It’s just there, and that’s that.
  4. a self-serious story about the meaning of life but…
    1. this is undercut by the offensive characterization of Ngoc who has a single memorable, almost moving scene and spends the rest of the time as an uncomfortable sidekick like Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the worst Indiana Jones movie (I stand by that).

If I were fixing this movie, I’d cut out the prologue and everything in Norway.  The movie is about Paul, right?  So we need to start and end with Paul.  This is his story, so any social commentary must fit within that story.  We can’t just uproot the main character to get him into a new setting only to shoehorn in a new social commentary.

Paul’s story is one about sadness.  He’s a man who has been failed by the American Dream, perhaps.  Even though the movie doesn’t emphasize the ‘down and out quality’ of his character at the start, the point seems to be the utter blandness of his life.  He’s a nice man who expresses sincere awe at the world around him, particularly the announcement of the new downsizing technology ten years before he himself undergoes it.  So Paul has a strong everyman quality.  He’s done everything society has told him to do, and he can’t afford to live the way he and his wife want to.

So the downsizing technology offers him and so many others a chance to live the American Dream.  But then he discovers two things… that the American Dream remains out of reach for a portion of the population and that this material happiness doesn’t offer real happiness.  The end melds these two qualities by having Paul find meaning in helping the less fortunate.

But he was already a helpful guy.  At the start of the film we see how much he helps his sick mother and his many coworkers.  He’s helpful at the start and at the end, nothing changes.

If the end is supposed to matter more, than Paul should be much more selfish at the start, kind of like Jason Sudeikis’ character based on the what we’re told about him.  That character, Dave, admits that he used to be a screw up and that his troubled marriage has been fixed by moving to Leisureland.

If the protagonist started like Dave and ended like Paul, well then boom, we have a character arc.

So Paul should be selfish yet still out of reach of all his goals.  He’s like a Walter White type, someone who desperately wants it all but is basically broke.  Instead of meth, Paul has Leisureland.  He enters this new world, but he finds that it’s not all it seems to be.

This presents a lot of opportunities.  Leisureland could be some kind of scam, not made with the altruism intended by its creator but rather something more greedy or malicious.  The man who made Leisureland could be as greedy as the people who choose to live there.  But this goes out the window because at the very start we meet the creator and learn that this technology has been created only for the good of humanity.

The other “not as it seems” option is that Leisureland doesn’t offer the happiness it’s meant to offer.  And this is what happens, but it’s only because Paul’s wife leaves him.  Had she not left him, it’s very likely that the two of them would enjoy this new life.  We’re given no reason to think that the unhappiness he feels at Leisureland has anything to do with Leisureland’s shortcoming.

I hate this, is what I’m saying, because the movie seems to have so much promise.

Here, check out the trailer:

At 0:46, Sudeikis says, “downsizing is about saving yourself” while we see a shot of Paul tiredly rubbing his face at a boring-looking job.  The implication is that Paul needs to escape his unexciting life, but that job is one he only works at once he’s in the small community.

The shot at 1:47 is not in the movie.

When Paul looks up at 2:06, the thing he’s looking up at is not what’s shown in the subsequent shot.  As we see those two shots, Christoph Waltz says, “the world is filled with things to see.”  This implies something about the wonder of the world, as if Paul will start to observe the world’s beauty precisely because he’s so much smaller.  But this still isn’t what the movie is about.  The only wondrous nature Paul sees is… well there isn’t much.  He just lives in Leisureland and has one moment in Norway when he acknowledges the beauty of nature.

The two shots from 2:19 – 2:22 (with the giant vodka bottle) are not in the movie.  This shot implies a playfulness towards the premise, an investigation of the implications of being small, but the movie mostly glosses over this.

Based on the trailer, this is a comedy about a man who is down and out learning to observe the natural beauty of the world by making himself small.  There is a sort of duality or contrast presented in the juxtaposition of the greatness of the American Dream and the premise of shrinking yourself to the size of a small spoon.

Sure, the trailer doesn’t need to convey all of the ideas and themes presented in the film, but it promises a completely different movie.  There isn’t much fun in this movie.  Once Paul is small, he spends most of his time interacting with the small world.  He goes on a boring date, goes to a bland backyard barbecue, goes to a rave and gets a job, for some reason gets a job (considering he supposedly has multiple millions of dollars to spend) and performs errands.

Downsizing is a movie that ignores its own premise and lets down just about everyone involved.  Were Wiig and Sudeikis cut out of more scenes?  And Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern?  What about the implication that the downsizing procedure leads to fatal complications?  In Norway, the man who invented the procedure makes a remark about the “surviving” members of the first community, only 11 years later.  Whether directly because of the procedure or because of a subsequent lack of medicine once they’re small, the point is casually made that some of them have died.  And all of the community members were young, so it should be unlikely that many of them have died in 11 years.  Also, there are two moments in which a character has a nasty lip abrasion that goes uncommented on.

A lot is set up, and little is paid off.

Up Next: I, Tonya (2017), The Congress (2013), Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015)

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