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"DOWNSIZING"
(2017) (Matt Damon, Hong Chau) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Sci-Fi Drama: A man finds his life changed forever when he voluntarily goes through a procedure that reduces him down to just five inches tall.
PLOT:
Paul (MATT DAMON) and Audrey Safranek (KRISTEN WIIG) are an ordinary couple leading an ordinary life in Omaha, Nebraska where Paul works as an occupational therapist. While at an alumni party, they're shocked to see former classmates who've been downsized. Not in the corporate sense, but in the physical one where a process invented by Dr. Jorgen AsbJornsen (ROLF LASSGARD) a decade earlier has allowed them and others to be shrunken down to just a few inches tall.

Not only is this good for the world that's becoming overpopulated and with increasingly limited resources, but also for those who opt for the irreversible procedure in that living small equates to equally diminished living expenses, be that related to clothing, food or mansions that can be built for pennies on the dollar due to their diminutive size in the real world.

After serious consideration and a visit to a miniature planned community known as Leisureland, the Safraneks decide to get downsized. But when Paul wakes up from the procedure, he's shocked to learn that Audrey backed out at the last moment and won't ever be joining him.

A year later, they're divorced and Paul has given up the mansion for apartment living, although the wild parties thrown by his upstairs playboy neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic (CHRISTOPH WALTZ), and that man's party pal, Joris Konrad (UDO KIER), are increasingly irritating him. But they encourage Paul to party with them, he agrees, and wakes up the next morning to see Dusan's cleaning crew arrive. Among them is Ngoc Lan Tran (HONG CHAU), a Vietnamese woman who was shrunken against her will by her government for staging protests and whose ill-fitting prosthetic leg draws Paul's attention.

He offers to help her with that, but when it accidentally breaks, he's forced to assist her with her daily rounds of helping others, be that a terminally ill woman in her tenement type apartment outside the towering walls of Leisureland, or feeding those in need. As he continues interacting with her, Paul begins to develop a different view of the world and his place in it.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Maybe it's because I've seen and reviewed so many movies for decades and have a background in screenwriting, but one of my big pet peeves for any new movie is it being too predictable. Yes, it's long been said that there are only so many basic story archetypes and that every story that could be told has already been told. Even so, creative and imaginative people can spin, alter and combine elements to such degrees that new offerings can still manage to feel fresh and novel despite their familiar trappings.

With that in mind, I can tell you with one-hundred percent certainty that if you see the sci-fi drama "Downsizing" with no advanced intel on the plot, there's a near zero possibility that you'll be able to accurately predict where things will be headed once the premise has been established. Of course, possessing a degree of unpredictability alone doesn't ensure that the film will be good let alone great. But at least you probably won't be bored.

Marking the seventh directorial outing of Alexander Payne -- who co-wrote the script here with Jim Taylor -- the film starts off with a mouse going through a miniaturization process known as downsizing, followed later by the first public display of a human having gone through the same, seemingly with no adverse side-effects. The thought is that by reducing humans' size by a huge ratio, their impact on Earth and its limited resources will be severely lessened.

But the good of the many eventually boils down to the good of the one and people soon realize their money will exponentially go further if they become small, as a regular sized bottle of liquor would last a lifetime, cars could run on regular batteries, and mansions could be built for pennies on the dollar due to their incredibly reduced footprint.

It's the latter that ultimately convinces occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) that he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) should undergo the procedure and live large like tiny kings and queens in the literally small suburban utopia of Leisureland. They then prepare for the procedure which is done in a very sci-fi meets dry comedy movie sort of way (which is a good thing) and we then imagine how the film will show them dealing with being small in a world where everyday normal items seem gargantuan to them, and where some previously benign critters could suddenly appear as menacing monsters.

At this point, I wasn't sure if the film would go the "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" or "The Incredible Shrinking Man" route, but then the story delivers plot twist number one that I didn't see coming. It's a bump in the road in terms of the storyline's direction, but otherwise that continues along where Paul gives up the mansion, moves into an apartment, and must contend with some middle-aged playboys (Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier) throwing wild parties upstairs.

After getting sucked into that party atmosphere one night, Paul wakes up the next morning to discover the cleaning crew has arrived, and one of those women, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), catches Paul's eye. And that's when the story starts heading in a completely different direction and then keeps veering off in more and more of an unexpected storyline correction. Some people will love that switcheroo and others might hate it -- or at minimum be completely caught off guard and confused by what's happened.

For me, I appreciate the effort, but don't think the transition is handled well enough to keep the fairly distinct storylines and their tonal qualities and plot elements connected. In short, you go into the film and begin watching one sort of movie and then find yourself viewing something almost entirely different. Yes, both are still about global issues and problems facing mother Earth and our effect on them. And both work decently enough on their own. But as a combined whole I just didn't find enough connective tissue to make the transition work without being too jarring or distracting for most viewers.

That said, Damon is good in the role playing sort of the ordinary man who has life throw him a bunch of curve balls, while Waltz and Kier make for a believable duo of fun-loving and somewhat decadent party men. But it's Chau who steals the show as a Vietnamese woman whose government downsized her for being a political dissident. With a somewhat stilted command of English, a gimpy gait because of her ill-fitting prosthetic leg, a highly opinionated, speak her mind demeanor, and a need to help those less fortunate than her, the character is something to behold and gets one signature speech that ends up knocked out of the park (and will likely earn Chau an Oscar nomination to go along with plenty of other critics groups nods that have already come her way).

It's too bad the rest of the film isn't as consistently brilliant as that one scene. It certainly has its moments along with some important subject matter, and no one will be able to state they were bored because they knew where this was headed from the get-go. I just wish the filmmakers had figured out a way to make it all come together better. Decent enough to earn a slight recommendation, "Downsizing" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 2, 2017 / Posted December 22, 2017


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