There’s an excellent reason I tend not to invest too heavily in trailers. I learned long ago that they either give away too much of what’s important or give you just enough of what is good but in an entirely fabricated way. That is to say, they either miss-sell the movie or mislead you completely. I tend to arrive too late to the theatre to even catch the previews, but one trailer that did stick in my mind last year was for Downsizing. Starring a principal cast of Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig and Christoph Waltz, it appeared to be a jolly romp satirising society’s greedy excesses through a novel lens. Sadly, the film itself does not live up to the promise of the preview.
Director Alexander Payne has a track record of movies that either directly hit the spot, or fail to make any real impact. Sideways left me feeling half-empty, Election I remember being fun at least from seeing it as a teenager, and I enjoyed the different atmospheres created in Nebraska and The Descendants. As co-screenwriter on Downsizing, it feels as though he didn’t know where to take Damon’s lead character, once the drama is supposed to kick in.
Played with suitable blandness by Damon, protagonist Paul Safranek, whose name people are always mispronouncing (see how downtrodden he is?) is stuck in a life going nowhere.
Unable to upsize their lifestyle in the soon-to-be economic climate, Paul and his wife Audrey (Wiig) decide the best way to get ahead is to shrink themselves to a fraction of their current height. This process is designed to save the world’s resources, as well as stretch one’s financial assets to wealthy status.
Once Paul finds himself in the miniature kingdom, everything is not as expected. It certainly is not fun, which sadly as the viewer, you’re hoping it will be. Throughout the film, Paul is unable to decide what the best thing is for him to do and that insecurity radiates through the entire film. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s profound, other times you’re unsure of where it’s going. To that end, it doesn’t lead you anywhere unexpected, or ultimately, entertaining. As shortcomings go, this is a big one.
There’s certainly a solid idea at the core of Downsizing, but the message seems too big to be contained within this single story, centring on one character that’s hard to invest in emotionally. The slow nature of the third act leaves the ending void of any dramatic tension, and it’s only the stand out performance of Hong Chau as a Vietnamese freedom-fighter-turned-cleaner that holds your attention. Naturally, Christoph Waltz has enough fun for all the characters combined, but they don’t seem allowed to have any.
Then you realise – the music in the trailer is what really sold you this movie. Once In a Lifetime is an optimistic, upbeat, unapologetic carnival of a song by new-wave-art-rockers Talking Heads. The undulating melody and captivating rhythms project a rollercoaster of emotions, focusing on middle-class anxieties. On the surface, this is an ideal track to trail Downsizing, but after over two indifferent hours of screen time, a better choice may have been Road To Nowhere.
★★ Alexander Payne follows the mighty Nebraska with a weak comedy that never lives up to the promise of the trailer.