MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Directed by Alexander Payne. Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz.
Satire is very hard to do, and next to impossible to pull off in a large-scale film. Director Alexander Payne succeeded in the past with his 1999 masterpiece Election and also had some brilliant moments mixed in with the nasty commentary of 2002’s About Schmidt. The blend of comedy and tragedy in his 2011 film The Descendants was brilliant.
There was every reason to hope that this year’s Downsizing would also be an exceptional film, but it’s a big swing and miss this time around. Even with reduced expectations, it is a hard film to champion.
The initial premise has potential. In the near future, a team of Norwegian scientists have perfected a process that can shrink animals down to miniscule proportions. Soon the process has been commercialized for humans and miniature communities the size of Christmas tree villages have become an option for folks wanting more out of the rest of their lives. Not only do small people consume less of the planet’s resources, but their money can buy them luxurious mansions and a carefree life in planned communities like Leisureland, protected by a dome that provides perfect weather conditions. The only snag is that once you are shrunk, there’s no going back.
Paul Safranek (Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are encouraged by friends to make the trip to Leisureland. Once Paul arrives at paradise, he soon discovers that there is a dark side to every utopia and he will have to make some life-changing decisions.
Yes, this film definitely wants to say some important things, and has its heart in the right ethical place. However, the movie’s progressive agenda is too impatient to lead viewers to their own conclusions, choosing instead to preach to them.
Downsizing is as much of a bait-and-switch trick as a timeshare trip to Orlando. It begins as a wacky science fiction comedy morphing into a critique of consumerism and then into a full-blown screed against class differences before arriving at a downbeat ending. In other words, the film is taking some serious risks to get to its destination. Sad to say, the farther along the story goes, the more we move away from the initial idea of downsizing.
There is also much to criticize about the film’s narrative choices. If a movie wants to make so many politically correct comments, why is the story focused on affluent white Americans? And why does Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a primary Vietnamese character, speak in pidgin English and act in a subservient way to Paul, betraying her reputation as a political activist? It is hard to reach a place of empathy while you are squirming.
I appreciate the good intentions of everyone involved. This film isn’t exactly a road to Hell, but at 2 hours and 10 minutes, it’s still one long heck of a paved road.
Four halos: A film with a lot of positive things to say about kindness, sacrifice for a greater good, and the emptiness of a consumer culture, trapped in a clunky mess of a movie.
Two pitchforks: Occasional swearing, innocent full-frontal nudity, some cringe-worthy stereotypes.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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