Alexander Payne’s most whimsical film yet, ‘Downsizing,’ is a modest ecocritical work that oscillates between multiple themes while seldom maintaining the focus needed to investigate any which one
It might seem weird, but let’s be honest–existence can be hard. Just living, breathing and going through the motions of life can be an endless barrage of frustrations and disappointments. Whether it’s your dead-end job or the loveless marriage one might find themselves in, the personal facets of one’s life can really be a drag. It almost begins to seem that the American Dream is a perennial falsehood; things will never improve and in order to find some morsel of happiness, one has to accept one’s existence and find joy in the little things in life.
And while that may sound like a case of grimacing clinical depression, it’s not. It’s just the world that preoccupies Alexander Payne. The two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker has made it no secret that the existential crisis-consumed middle-aged man is, and seemingly forever will be, his primary cinematic focus. But that’s not to say that this is a filmmaker that has watched a little too much Andrei Tarkovsky or Ingmar Bergman. It’s not even to suggest that he’s read into a Bertolt Brecht or Samuel Beckett play a bit too overzealously. Instead, Payne has gleaned a thimbles worth of thematic characterization and instilled in a profoundly Americana fashion that is as modernist as it is just plain amusing and humorous.
From the wonderfully charming About Schmidt to the inspiring Nebraska, the Omaha-native writer-director has always found the worlds of ordinary folk to be the most stimulating and creatively arousing. And indeed, these characters and their sleepy settings often reflect the larger issues that are at hand, acting as a mediator between the true dilemma that is plaguing them and the quandary that is preoccupying the viewer’s day-to-day life. These characters are rooted to a position that does not satisfy them. They are unhappy and yearn for change. And that change is often scary, extreme, and upsetting. And yet, these characters undergo a personal journey in which they grow and become better versions of themselves. It’s as if it’s a truly earnest expression of the hackneyed saying, “the journey is more important than the destination.” It makes for a stirring cinematic experience that more often than not leads to a pleasantly perceptive characterization that is as satisfying as it is complex and profound.
Downsizing attempts to find that magic, but seldom does in the same manner as Payne’s previous work. The uprooted, slightly overweight middle-aged man of this story is occupational therapist, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He’s stuck in a rudderless existence, often putting other people’s comfort’s over his own. Once destined to be a successful doctor, the kind-hearted Paul returned home after his mother grew sick with fibromyalgia. Years later, his mother has passed and Paul is still stuck in a seemingly meaningless existence with an unhappy, migraine-suffering wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Their financial situation is dire and their personal satisfaction nearly non-existent. Something has to change. And that’s when “downsizing” enters the picture.
Downsizing refers to the irreversible procedure by which an individual is shrunk down to a height of five inches. By doing so, they’re not only saving their own precarious financial situation but they’re also helping save the environment, for a five inch person certainly doesn’t produce as much waste as a six foot human. To Paul, it seems to be the solution to all his problems. Who wouldn’t want to start life anew if given the chance? Plus, you get to egotistically gloat that you’re helping the environment. Sounds like a win-win.
But things don’t go according to plan as Audrey chickens out of the procedure at the last minute, leading to their inevitable divorce. Within a year, Paul sees that he is right back where he started–rudderless and bored. It’s at this moment that the occupational therapist-turned-telemarketer begins to enter the next phase of his life that pervades the characterizations to much of Payne’s other films: a journey that is both literal and internal. It is during this existential self-discovery that Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese political activist as well as aging reveler Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and his trusty yacht-loving sidekick Joris Konrad (Udo Kier). Each of them offer Paul a new outlook that deeply alters his perceptions of the world and his seeming naivëte.
And if that sound dizzying, that’s because it mostly is. Between the constant diegetic elbow-nudges (it’s a giant bottle of vodka!) and the evanescent themes (is it about the environment? Human rights? Consumerism?), Downsizing sure tries to pack in a great deal in the 135 minute runtime. Coupled with its oscillation between thought-provoking, finger-wagging drama and rocarous, eye-opening comedy, Downsizing may be Payne’s most unfocused film in years. Sure, it can be an infatuating experience at times, providing a deep sense of urgency in its eco-critical narrative and empathetic characterizations in the form of Damon’s and Chau’s wondrous performances. Yet somehow, Payne’s enduring obsession with existential modernism falls flat of its self-imposed expectations.
That’s not to say that Downsizing is necessarily a bad film. On the contrary, Downsizing is certainly a good film, but when we are discussing Alexander Payne (who has been nominated for every film he has made since Citizen Ruth), good is not good enough. When walking into an Alexander Payne film, audience’s expect great–even perfect. Unfortunately, Downsizing is seldom that. Which is unfortunate for the film’s environmental focus (the one of many) is its most pressing thread. Perhaps that will be the enduring legacy that this film eventually earns: earnest ecocriticism.
Downsizing premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. It hits theaters everywhere December 22.