THERE’S so much about Alexander Payne’s movie Downsizing (15) that doesn’t quite work that it’s easy to overlook some of the many endearing facets of his ambitious 2017 sci-fi satire.
For a start, it’s not every day you get a film brave enough to play to audience concerns about global warming and eco-sustainability, but these aren’t subjects ideally suited to comedy so perhaps it’s no surprise that this unlikely fantasy never seems entirely clear what it is trying to achieve.
It’s a dilemma which clearly confused the writer responsible for the DVD sleeve, because if Downsizing is anything it’s certainly not “hilarious” in any laugh-out-loud way – unless you find a Vietnamese refugee speaking in pidgin English side-splittingly funny, that is.
Yes, there are some witty concepts, intriguing characters and entertaining dialogue, but despite the thoughtful and expansive premise, the film tends to fall between all the available stools – neither arthouse nor mainstream and not scoring a hit with the critics or at the box office, despite the familiar names on the cast list.
By its nature satire tends to cause discomfort and unease and yet there are plenty of life-affirming moments in Downsizing, which perhaps ensures that as dystopias go, this isn’t a journey that leaves us too emotionally exhausted.
Perhaps that’s the central problem – it’s hard to stay upbeat in the face of imminent apocalypse and there are times when we are not sure whether to laugh or cry about the whole experience.
The initial premise is original enough (although it’s worth remembering that Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726). Here the twist is that visionary Norwegian scientist Dr Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard) has uncovered a shrinking formula which provides a potential solution to the world’s population woes.
This raises the prospect that miniaturised people will consume only a fraction of the world’s resources but the utopian project is soon hijacked by American capitalism, paving the way for an explosion of tiny dome-covered communities boasting a lifestyle of ease and opulence marketed with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that makes the average car salesman look like a rank amateur.
The fundamentally sound qualities of central everyman figure Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) are somewhat offset by his beigeness. But it’s easy to see how our unfulfilled hero might be tempted by the prospect of upward mobility in micro-suburbia, and his new life as someone five inches tall provides plenty of scope for inventive satire as it becomes only too clear that life in the diminutive world of Leisureland is a literal microcosm of the big bad world outside.
There are plenty of surprises awaiting Paul when he starts to scratch the surface of the miniature community, starting with the potentially alluring lifestyle of his new neighbour, the larger-than-life Serb black marketeer Dusan, played by Christoph Waltz.
But if the disarmingly roguish Dusan seems cartoonish, how are we supposed to react to his cleaner, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese illegal immigrant who was shrunk against her will while imprisoned as a dissident.
In some ways it’s only Hong Chau’s bravura performance that enables her to overcome the extraordinary list of clichés and stereotypes she has been saddled with, her staccato broken English troubling more politically correct audiences, although most were won over by her irrepressible energy and Payne assures us she was created and brought to life with a lot of tenderness.
Paul manages to resist the hedonistic attractions of party boy Dusan’s existence and is drawn instead into the darker world of Ngoc Lan’s life in the dirt-poor ghetto where she lives outside Leisureland’s walls.
So far, so good – after all, Payne has an excellent track record in exploring the anguish of humdrum middle-aged American men and the special effects are used cleverly to immerse us in the small world in such a way that the absurdist humour never allows us to become distracted by hi-tech gimmickry.
But if it’s a pleasant change to exchange Bond-style supermen for a “real” hero, Damon is sometimes not the most entertaining of companions and his relationship with Ngoc Lan feels a little cartoonish at times too as he blankly takes in the harsh realities of life for the disabled activist who has become part of Leisureland’s exploited underclass.
On the one hand we are being bombarded with bold reminders of humankind’s fundamental flaws, but many of the avenues are left unexplored and questions unanswered, despite the film feeling a little rambling and overlong.
Love may conquer all, but it may well do so in a somewhat bland and suburban way, despite the off-stage collapse of the world as we know it.
And if it feels like a very fitting message for our times to explore the lengths people will go to escape global overcrowding and the dangers of climate change, Damon is sometimes less than compelling company on the journey to enlightment and a little too passive to win our hearts, never mind the sharp-voiced and sharper-brained Ngoc Lan’s.
We understand the need to escape from the prison of materialism, and the spectre of a new kind of migration crisis lends a sense of urgency to the closing third of the film, but the loose ends rankle and ultimately Paul’s road to redemption feels a little too muddled to leave audiences feeling truly moved.
Downsizing gives us pause for thought and raises some intriguing questions about the world we live in, but never quite becomes the miniature masterpiece Payne’s fans might have hoped for.