Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Film Review - Downsizing (15)

Something very big is happening.
Downsizing is suffering from what might be called the Mother! effect. It's nothing like that crazy film in content, but both have marketing campaigns that lead audiences to expect one type of experience, before delivering something radically different. On first glance Downsizing looks like a high-concept science-fiction comedy - The Incredible Shrinking Man done as a suburban sitcom. But this is written and directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), and gets into some heavy existential wrangles before the story is done. It's much more than a Friday night diversion.
Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play Paul and Audrey Safranek, a financially struggling couple who consider a medical procedure of literal downsizing. A Scandinavian scientist has perfected human cellular reduction, whereby anyone can be shrunk to a size of around five inches in height. 'Small' communities are being encouraged globally, since tiny people produce a fraction of the waste produce, thus helping salvage the environment. But it's also sold as a shrewd financial move, modest savings stretching much further when you start life in a model-sized town. So Paul and Audrey agree to take the plunge, securing themselves a place within a plush downsized community called Leisureland. The consequences are instant and extraordinary. 
Downsizing is a story told in distinct acts, each one moving somewhere utterly unexpected. There's the journey into the miniaturised world, the adapting to the norms of this apparent Utopia and then a whole other journey of discovery (one that puts the 'odd' into odyssey). The opening sections have all the quirky visual humour and sharp wit you'd expect from a Payne movie; the actual downsizing sequence is a comically surreal tour de force, accompanied by Rolfe Kent's beautifully-judged score. (Overall the music is as tonally varied as the movie.) Leisureland is cleverly realised in its feel and texture, so that it looks miniature even when there's nothing big in the frame to remind you of its scale.
Payne's sense of the satirical is in place from early on and only sharpens as the plot unfolds and the small communities' utopian ideals are put - as it were - under the microscope. The broad comedy of the big/little premise gradually gives way to something much more weighty, as the movie strives to support some ironically huge ideas. It's here that you'll either be captivated as a viewer, or do as several audience members did at Chatham Odeon and hit the exit.
Damon is a great everyman, one who you truly root for if you stick around, and Wiig is nicely understated, but in truth the most surprising performances come from elsewhere. Christoph Waltz plays a louche and connected neighbour in the downsized community to great comic effect, while Thai actress Hong Chau (TV's Big Little Lies) is a big-screen revelation as a house cleaner with a turbulent past. Both help steer the drama in those unpredictable, arguably frustrating directions. 
Downsizing is a film with ambitions as grand as its central characters are miniature. What begins as an off-kilter comedy, with a concept that's gleefully bananas, turns into something with real gravity, raising issues of environmental responsibility and how we struggle to create meaning in our lives. It also proves that in terms of human behaviour, whether good and bad, size simply doesn't matter.  
Gut Reaction: Regular chuckling for the first two thirds, then growing fascination in the final one. It didn't occur to me until the end that those guys had walked out!

Where Are the Women?: Wiig is good, but Hong Chau is the movie's surprising emotional core. (She didn't get a Best Supporting Actress Nom for the Oscars. This is a shame.)

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. I loved its comic weirdness, its ambition, even its perpetually evolving tone. This one will polarise opinion, but I'm fighting its corner. Go see it and then we'll talk. 

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