Review: Alexander Payne’s Downsizing

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Mark: Well Derek, it looks like we both survived another X-Mas without being killed by Santa. That means it’s time for another Half-Baked Review Chinfest. Today we’ll be reviewing the latest film by director Alexander Payne, Downsizing. With its sci-fi premise about people having themselves shrunk down to five inches tall, Downsizing is being called a departure for the maker of more character-driven dramas like Sideways and Nebraska. I consider myself a fan of Alexander Payne, and not just because he’s from Omaha. How about you, Derek?

Derek: Welcome back, Mark! I don’t know about you, but I always enjoy the X-mas season, with the gleam of holiday laser sights, the smell of gun oil, and the mortal terror of the hunt. And I’m a big fan of Alexander Payne—he made that movie about the Statue of Liberty getting an abortion, right? Now that’s science fiction!

Mark: I think you are referring to his first film, Citizen Ruth. You might be off a little bit on your plot summary, but that’s close enough, I guess. In the new film, which Payne cowrote with Jim Taylor, Paul and Audrey Safranek, played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, decide to undergo the irreversible procedure that will shrink them to about five inches tall. The downsizing procedure is touted by the company that sells it as being environmentally friendly because small people use fewer resources. The clincher for most people, though, including Paul and Audrey, is that even people of modest means become wealthy once they are shrunk. After all, it’s a lot cheaper to build a mansion when it only has to be the size of a doll house. So, Paul and Audrey make arrangements to downsize and move to Leisure Land, one of the most popular communities for small people, where they will live happily ever after.

Derek: I guess this is the point where we should fire up the Spoiler Klaxon™, whose ear-piercing wail warns of terrible, movie-enjoyment-obliterating information to follow. Readers should adjust the volume on their devices as needed.

The Spoiler Klaxon warms that awful truths must follow

OK, with that out of the way, I have to say that I love Matt Damon in this film. He makes a daring choice to appear for a substantial part of the movie without eyebrows, which looks very weird. I liken it to Charlize Theron’s portrayal of serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, in which Theron is not as attractive as usual. It must have been quite the ordeal for Damon on set, and his performance while lugging around those massive, prosthetic bare eyebrows is nothing short of miraculous. I picture him staggering about with his overweighted head swaying precariously to and fro.

Mark: And Payne didn’t blow the whole budget on prosthetic face bits and makeup, either. The special effects in this movie are quite convincing. However, I think that has led people to play up the sci-fi side of the film a little too much. Sure, the first half hour or so involves a lot of sciency-sounding explanations about the discovery and development of the downsizing procedure. And then there is the process of downsizing itself. And because of the adequate special effects and camera tricks, it really seems like a sci-fi movie. But that’s just the set-up. Granted, it’s a really good set-up, but’s that’s pretty much the end of any real sci-fi element to the film. Once Paul has been shrunk and gets over the fact that his wife decides at the last moment not be downsized with him, the movie changes into an Alexander Payne movie. It becomes one that uses its everyman main character to explore many issues facing society today.

Derek: I’m anxious to hear more about this movie! It seems that social commentary located in the mundane is a strong tendency in Payne’s oeuvre. Sideways couches a serious examination of male friendship and failure in a light-handed matrix of substance abuse, and the aforementioned Citizen Ruth explores individual agency in society through the metaphor of a ne’er-do-well, nineteenth-century French statue getting knocked up.

So I’m guessing that Payne is doing something similar here with the idea of being very small, which he supplements by highlighting the dual nature of eyebrows: on the one hand, they are biologically superfluous, but on the other, you don’t know whatcha got ‘til they’re gone.

“No. They’re just gone. It’s weird.”

Mark: Don’t get me started on things that are biologically superfluous. The title of my master’s thesis, “Voluntary Pinkie Amputation—Why Hasn’t This Caught On?” shows how far ahead of the times I was.

Derek: I’m going to stop you there, Mark. While I would be fascinated to, once again, hear you make the case for how would we could advance our own evolution by doing away with…what did you call it?

Mark: The “Midget Digit”!

Derek: Yeah, that. It’s kind of off topic and has a nomenclature of questionable taste. Also that’s not how evolution works.

Mark: Sorry, of course you’re right.

Derek: Plus, I can’t help but notice that you still have ten fingers.

Mark: Okay, let’s not talk about this now. Back to the movie. After Paul is made small and after his divorce, he moves on with his life in Leisure Land. Apparently, he gets taken in the divorce to the point that he still has to take a job as a telemarketer. His new life is shaping up to be just as mundane as his old life. I feel like Payne might be trying to make some sort of statement here. Derek, do you agree?

Derek: Absolutely, and I’m struck by Payne’s insight into how awful telemarketing is—the entire motif of little Paul and his tiny headset is a powerful indictment of the industry that has shrunken us all through its intrusive telephony.

That statement, right?

Mark: No, I think it might have been something more like trying to remind us that big changes in our lives that we expect to solve everything, rarely work out that way. You know, how life has a way of throwing something unexpected at us, so we should try to fix ourselves. Also, Intrusive Telephony sounds like a great band name.

Derek: I’m working on a logo as we speak. So let’s talk about some of the other characters, who are played by actors and have names, I imagine. How did the rest of the cast stack up in your opinion?

Kristen Wiig makes an appearance in this review

Mark: Well, there were several performances worth noting. Jason Sudeikis plays Dave Johnson, a friend of Paul and Audrey’s from high school. It is Dave and his wife Carol who originally convince Paul and Audrey to downsize. Sudeikis is charismatic in his usual supporting buddy who kinda eggs the main character on sort of role.

Then, there’s the role of Dusan, Paul’s upstairs neighbor, played by Christoph Waltz. Waltz plays the role of the aging Serbian playboy wonderfully. Most of the time, he seems to be an out of control hedonist who cares only for himself, which is what he is. But Waltz gives the character enough humanity that it’s believable when we see that same Dusan trying to help Paul. I enjoyed his performance quite a bit.

And there is also Hong Chau’s performance as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will and imprisoned as punishment for organizing demonstrations against the government. She is the only survivor from a group of prisoners who escaped by hiding in a TV box. After her rescue, she is near death and loses a leg to amputation. Chau’s performance is being described as Oscar worthy, and at times, she does steal the show. Many of the biggest laughs of the movie come from her lines. And I’m sure all the laughing was due to the cleverness of the lines, not the pidgin English in which they were delivered. Right?

Derek: There is nothing as self-affirming as accent-based comedy, that’s true! And on a related note, I’m not questioning your analysis or anything, but are you sure Christoph Waltz isn’t playing a Nazi? I mean, he does that whole “charming but sinister” Nazi thing so well. And let’s be honest, he looks and sounds like a Nazi. Really, I can’t think of a better strategy for a war criminal on the lam than to shrink yourself and pretend to be Serbian. It would also give the film the historical gravitas I assume is missing.

Mark: I guess Dusan does have a bit of a sketchy past, but I don’t think he’s a Nazi in hiding. I mean, how old would that make him? It would seem Payne decided to forgo historical gravitas on this one. As I was saying earlier, after the sci-fi premise is established, the movie becomes one about the everyman Paul starting his life over in Leisure Land. We see that Paul’s strongest instinct is to help. We see him using his knowledge of occupational therapy to help his coworkers.

This instinct also leads him to try to fix the aforementioned Ngoc Lan Tran’s prosthetic leg. Instead, he accidentally breaks it. Because it will be several weeks until Ngoc Lan Tran’s prosthetic leg can be repaired, Paul will have to help her with her work and with all the other things that she does to help the poor and underprivileged among Leisure Land’s residents. This leads to Paul’s necessary character growth, and, also the inevitable yet uninspired love story.

Derek: As I always say, love and occupational therapy go together like two other completely dissimilar things, so I can see how we got there. Forget love for a minute, though; I’d like to know more about this prosthetic leg. What kind of cybernetic interface does it use? Does it become self-aware—I think that would be a great sci-fi film: cyber-limbs attain consciousness and decide to destroy humanity. But one limb decides to fight for its creators! I love it!

Be right back. I’m going to go hammer out a treatment.

Mark: I think you’d be disappointed with this prosthetic like I was disappointed with this movie. It started with a great sci-fi premise. The idea of being able to retire into a life of leisure by voluntarily shrinking yourself is inspired. It’s so inspired that it could be the springboard for a million different ways of critiquing society or technology or what we should really value in life. And that’s what Payne tries to do. Through his lens, we see that when people chase happiness through financial independence, there are still haves and have nots. And it’s still mostly unfair. And that’s probably how things will always be, and blah blah blah. And then it becomes a love story just in time for Paul to have to choose between staying behind (and probably dying) with his newfound love, and going underground with a small group of small people who think they can restart society. I won’t tell you what he decides.

Anyway, I wouldn’t say Downsizing is a bad movie. It’s a movie that has a great premise, some very good acting, and a lot of wasted potential. It seems like it could have been reworked into something more interesting, but ended up being boring.

I rate it three out of five (intact) pinkies.

🤙🤙🤙XX

Derek: I am not going to make a joke about viewers downsizing expectations. I’m not. I won’t do it. But seriously, they should probably go in with very small, possibly shrunken hopes.

I’m the meantime, I’ve finished with the first draft of my script. I’m going to call it Hooked on Armageddon, which is a pun, with the voice of Jonah Hill as EB-422, the prosthetic eyebrow-hero of the Resistance. I plan to make many dollars from this hit film.

I give Downsizing a randomly generated 4 out of 5 eyebrowless cats.

😺😺😺😺X

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