Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Dec 22, 2017 4:03 am 
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Shrinking premise

Paul Safranek is an occupational therapist from Omaha whose name everyone mispronounces and who wanted to be a surgeon. At first we see him caring for his sick mother. Ten years later he is married to Kristen Wiig, with financial problems. These lead him to opt for "cellular miniaturisation," popularly known as "downsizing," a revolutionary medical procedure developed by Norwegians headed by Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) a decade or more earlier. This enables humans to undergo a process that permanently shrinks them to .0364 of their original size, around five inches.

We are shown the dawn of this revolution, but the film isn't about the Swifian possibilities of human disproportions so much as the circuitous personal odyssey of poor Paul Safranek. Downsizing is meant as a solution to overpopulation, "reducing" population by size instead of numbers. But it's touted by those selling it (and it is sold, for profit) as a get-rich-quick scheme. Equity of $152,000, which is what Paul has, becomes $12.5 million in the tiny world built for "downsized" people, who can afford to live in McMansions. Paul opts for the procedure, but misfortune befalls him. So begins what is most likely Alexander Payne's least successful effort, which simply does not know what to do with its premise.

One of Payne's troubles is his choice of a protagonist as nerdy and uninteresting as Safranek. Another big one is that once Paul, all his hair shaved off, his fillings removed (because they won't shrink, one supposes), and scooped up with a spatula by normal-sized operatives, is transferred to Leisureland, the premiere community, in a bubble, for the downsized, the fact that we're in the world of the shrunken makes little difference. There are none of the dramatic, amusing, or rude contrasts Swift shows us in Gulliver's Travels with his Brobdingnagians and Lilliputians, nor any of the enlightening commentary on human frailties. We get mostly Paul's neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz, in a reductive role also) and a Vietnamese former dissident, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), with a missing lower leg.

Dusan is an oily sybarite profiting by selling luxuries like (slightly fake) Cuban cigars to the downsized. Tran is reduced to working as a house cleaner, but she's a passionate dogooder in Leisureland's fringe poor community as well. Paul is drawn to her and her good works; but Dusan plays a key role in his life too.

What seemed to start out as a sci-fi satire winds up as a fable about doing good, and about whether it is possible to save the human race. Payne meanders. He's all over the map. His film, which began with a sci-fi conceit with strong satirical possibilities, winds up being aimless and maudlin. This is not a terrible movie and some may think it grand. But it leaves you dissatisfied, and is a pretty outsized disappointment coming from the director of such beautifully focused films as fine as Election, Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska.

Downsizing, 135 mins., debuted at vence 30 Aug. 2017; 15 other international festivals including Toronto, London and Vienna. US theatrical release 22 Dec. 2017. Metacritic rating 6̶6̶%̶ 63%.

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