Satire without a central target results in scattershot humor, and mostly unfunny movies. That seems to be what has occurred with Downsizing, the latest film from director Alexander Payne and his writing partner, Jim Taylor. Despite a promising premise, the resultant film is barely a comedy at all, sends mixed messages and fails to take advantage of its science-fictional elements. It is no wonder to me that audiences have not connected with this mess.
Payne’s film seems to be offering “cellular miniaturization” as a cool thing to do (at least for its characters) and a benefit to humanity and the environment. But a closer examination reveals the fallacy of that premise — which may be the story’s ultimate point. While miniaturizing people down to 5″ tall eliminates most of their wasteful “footprints” on the Earth, and, thus, their environmental impact, it doesn’t improve the way they live. In fact, in the Payne / Taylor scenario, the well-intentioned people who undergo the procedure discover that their newfound wealth (everything small costs much, much less) gives them plenty of time, which they mostly waste. And then there are other small people, mostly Hispanic and Asian, who, just as in the normal-sized world, are not included in the utopian society at all except as support staff. They actually live in a tiny tenement building outside the Leisureland complex.
The film doesn’t satirize our middle-class society so much as indict it, whether it be large or small. It postulates bigger ideas, such as the survival of the human race and, specifically, the option of a closed society underground posed to survive an upcoming extinction event — yet this option is shown to be unpalatable for most ordinary people, as evidenced by the fact that the central characters reject it outright. Payne and Taylor understand that people’s immediate needs and desires will triumph over altruism, but the story doesn’t have much of anything to say about that, nor much else. It fails to satirize why people would undergo miniaturization, how they would cope, how they would be exploited by outside forces, or why any of this would matter to us. What is left is a rather uninteresting drama about a guy (Matt Damon) trying to find his tiny place in this shrunken suburban universe.
Moments when the movie should have soared are present, but in each case the story fails to follow through. It isn’t a safe film at all — some of its choices are quite bold and unexpected — and yet it seems like the effects of the size reduction are reduced to a side note. Instead of the obvious comparisons between the small and the large, most of the time viewers wouldn’t even be aware that the protagonists are smaller size than normal. What a disappointment. ☆ ☆. 9 January 2018.