DownsizingAlexander Payne (USA 2017)Matt Damon
viewed Tyneside Cinema 30 Jan 2018; ticket £9.75
downsizing the movie industry
Looking at the mid week audience of about 20 people scattered throughout the sizeable 300 plus auditorium I was thinking that if this was a representative mainstream movie, then the feature film exhibition industry was itself about to be downsized.
Alexander Payne’s film opens with a promising proposition, an allegorical proposition concerning the discovery of a scientific procedure to miniaturise humans.The altruistic purpose behind the development of downsizing by a Norwegian research group was to benefit the environment of planet earth, that downsizing would mediate the catastrophic human effect on the environment by enabling our footprint on earth to be reduced to a sustainable smaller level.
Thus far so good.A classic scifi proposition with a rich allegorical vein to explore.There are ideas that as starting points, could set up any number of lines of development.But all Alexander Payne can do is drive his film into an allegorical and conceptual dead end. His script suffers from the current Hollywood malaise of not only being unfocused and unable spin a clear narrative; but also of seeming to want to placate and keep onside the myriad phantoms of political correctness that now flit through the inner psychic calculations of American directors like swarms of censorious bats.
Downsizing is a confusion.Payne’s script tries on all sorts of allegorical clothing. Abandonment, as Audrey Paul’s wife ducks out of downsizing without telling him, appears for a moment as a core theme.Downsizing trips out as: cryogenic style hard sell where the big cynical corporations cash in on the desires of the gullible; downsizing is pitched as a quasi religious conversion experience; as a noble ecological experiment. It is also looked at as an individually tailored solution to the suburban cash flow problem. When downsized the cost of living is reduced so that the American dream (which is basically doing nothing except sitting in the sun and consuming stuff) is attainable by everyone.All you have to do is trust the banks to handle your money wisely.
But each of these ideas, and their inherent contradictions, is picked up and put down like a tourist bauble in a bazaar. Any one or combination of these ideas carries the internalised satiric drive that could energise the core of a script. Further,Payne only skirts the dark side of downsizing: it’s potential use as a control mechanism; downsizing as a punishment; the vulnerability of being as small of being prey to the rapacity of birds vermin and insects. And of course thepotential for the vicious malice of the world to intercede in the little world to make its power and presence itself felt. The possibility of the normal sized people capturing the little people and keeping them for entertainment and torture.
In the first sections of the movie the defining shots worked to suggest the oppressive collective consensual uniformity of the suburban culture in which Paul is located: tracking shots of the meat processing plant, with its myriad ranks of sterilised butchers gutting and stripping flesh; the series of shots detailing the mass downsizing chambers with theirattendant technicians; and Paul’s emergence bereft of his wife, into the downsized world opens up a filmic vista reminiscent of the Truman Show.
But at this pointPayne’s movie starts to simply unravel, drifts off into forgetfulness.
Failing to fit out Downsizing with any sort of envelopment, Payne eventually opts for the hippy trip as the solution to his scripting direction.About half way through the film Paul is invited to his neighbour’s party, an event that is filmed to look like something Russ Meyer might have shot in the 60’s or 70’s ( Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), a typical Hollywood rendition of the Hippy Happy all night Party with drugs sex and soundtracked with anodyne generic feel good american rock music.
The Russ Meyer party scene becomes defining moment in Downsizing.From this point on,Payne loses all interest in his miniaturisation concept.The proposition is just dropped. The film instead transforms into a rather dull ‘quest’ movie. Downsizing simply fills out its duration with characters and settings: Paul’s spunky Vietnamese girl friend, two Russ Meyer escapees and an old hippy colony on Norwegian Fjord.Again the Hippy Cult with its echoes of Manson, Jones and Koresh might have provided a rich vein of black satirical probing.But Payne plays it sort of straight.The Hippy colony disappears down into a hole in the ground to find salvation, with Paul at the last moment changing his mind and escaping back to his chums.
The ending has forgotten its beginning.No one cares.
Of course by leaving his ending open, with Paul and his girlfriend free agents above ground, Payne leaves open the possibility of a Downsizing 2, to drive even more people out of the downsized cinema.