Sunday, 7 January 2018

downsizing



Wow!

And now for something completely different. It’s always such a joy to say that, assuming the film it refers to has been a satisfying viewing experience. In the case of downsizing, directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, my experience was more than satisfying, perhaps all the more so because most film critics thought it was a mediocre film. I can only guess that downsizing was such a different kind of film that critics, and average viewers, who gave the film a “C” score and a 5.8 score on IMDB, had no idea what to do with it (this wasn’t helped by trailers which I can only guess intentionally misled viewers to expect a silly comedy instead of a profound sci-fi drama). At least ten people (out of about 75) walked out of our theatre once they realized their mistake.

Ironically, people walked out during some of the best moments of the film (for me, at least), leaving me once again wondering why so few people want more than just escapist fare when they go to the cinema. Of course, I almost walked out  myself (not seriously) early in the film when the protagonist (Paul Safranek, played by Matt Damon), a forty-something man married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), questioned my self-worth by saying, to indicate his own failures in life, “I’m still living in the house I grew up in.” Sigh.

One day, Paul, an occupational therapist whose life feels stagnant, sees that his high school friend is much happier as a man who is only five inches tall. That’s right, scientists in Norway have discovered a way to make people 0.0346% of their original size, thus providing an answer to the many ways the earth’s growing population is destroying the planet. By consuming only a tiny fraction of the earth’s resources and creating only a tiny amount of waste, downsizing everyone may be the answer to a sustainable life on earth for millennia to come. Paul is convinced, though Audrey is more hesitant until she sees the size of the mansion they can afford to live in in Leisureland, the home of the downsized, not to mention hearing that they’ll never have to work again.

Unfortunately, things don’t work out too well for Paul (a common theme in the film) and he ends up in a miniature world where he is even less happy than he was before, living in a small apartment and doing a job he hates (telephone salesperson) because he allowed his license to expire. It doesn’t help that his new neighbour, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), keeps having noisy parties. But when Dusan invites Paul to join one of the parties, Paul’s life will change forever, not least because of his encounter with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese protest leader who was imprisoned and downsized against her will, then almost died in an illegal journey in a TV box, and is now a cleaning woman (working for Dusan, among others).

Perhaps that’s enough of an introduction. I’ll just mention that Rolf Lassgård (last year’s Ove) has an important role as Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen, the man who discovered downsizing. The acting of all those mentioned above was excellent, with a special nod to Waltz and Chau. Chau’s character, Ngoc Lan Tran, is one of the most original, refreshing and endearing characters I’ve seen in a long time, and Chau makes it work.

Then again, downsizing as a film is one of the most original, refreshing and endearing films I’ve watched in a  long time. Nothing is predictable, the relationships/friendships are fascinating but credible, there’s a strong humanizing message throughout, there are numerous profound conversations about climate change and the future of our planet, not to mention scenes dealing with issues like gender, class, wealth and power, and, above all, it provides clues to what it means to live our daily lives in a world that is becoming unsustainable. Marvellous stuff!

I should mention that there is a fair bit of comedy (including lots of social satire), but to call downsizing a comedy (as many do) is, I think, missing the seriousness of this imaginative and profound story. A final note to say that downsizing also features gorgeous cinematography and lots of appropriate music. So, like Gareth, I’m giving downsizing **** and a place in my top ten films of the year. My mug is up for perhaps the most underrated film of the year.

1 comment:

  1. (mild spoilers) It's a good film, and I like what you say about it, but I also get where the critics are coming from. And the main problem is not that it was misrepresented as a comedy but that it doesn't make up its mind about what it is. Serious social satire - yes; character study of Paul - yes; lighthearted comedy - occasionally. Does this all work together well? Not as well as one might hope. I think my main disappointment is that the character study and the social satire fight against each other instead of help each other. Paul's character is very interesting - kind, bordering on co-dependent, not very self-aware, lots of difficulty taking responsibility for his life. What develops over the course of the film? Not a heck of a lot - even through the critical moments toward the end. A bit of insight is about all he gets. So the end result of that is just some interesting distraction from what was otherwise fascinating satire. Imagine what this movie could have been if the character study would have enhanced the satire?

    But I could be reading this wrong. Maybe as a typical person for whom "things don't work out too well" it does work. But somehow the pieces didn't seem to all work together and I think the audience responses reflect this.

    But enough complaint about a good movie. I, too, thought Chau's role was a highlight. And maybe that is the main point - that privileged American men need to stay in the backseat and let energetic and wise women from other countries show them some wisdom.

    The best insights for me were about what happens when positive social change (even for desperate reasons) is "sold" based on catering to self-interest instead of appealing to something higher. Yes, that "works" but...

    In spite of my complaints it is nearly ****, but feels stuck somewhere between that and ***+ for me. Still a good mug up and it will probably make an appearance on my top ten (because it wasn't really an awesome year).

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