Alexander Payne

Downsizing

09/01/18

Downsizing is a high-concept film, its ‘what if’ premise explored with such fastidiousness that the undoubtedly outlandish seems utterly believable. We’re in the near future, and Norwegian scientist, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), has devised a means of shrinking organic matter (plants, animals, people). He envisages his discovery as a force for good, a way to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment, and to make space for the earth’s growing population. His prototype ‘tiny community’ is a success, and soon there is a growing demand for the safety and relative wealth downsizing seems to offer.

Eight years into the experiment, everyfolk Paul and Audrey Sefranik (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are seduced by the idea. They’re tired and disappointed by the life they’re living: they’re not poor, but they’ve nothing extra; they’re exhausted and unfulfilled by their work (as an occupational therapist and a shoe-shop assistant respectively); their house is fine, but it’s a long way from the ideal homes that are peddled as the answer to their dreams. When their old friends, Dave and Carol (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe), tell them about their new life in American tiny community, Leisureland, it proves hard to resist the lure of a world where their $160,000 assets will translate into $12,000,000 in real terms. They can have the mansion, the country club membership, the social life, the freedom. They can escape the mundanity of their existence and live the fantasy lifestyle of the super-rich. Of course their heads are turned.

But (spoiler alert!), their plans are thwarted when Audrey realises that she can’t go through with the irreversible procedure; she doesn’t want to leave her friends and family behind. But it’s too late for Paul, who’s already been shrunk, and – after the inevitable divorce – he finds himself adrift in Leisureland, poorer than ever and working in a call centre. Because, of course, Leisureland is a miniature version of the society in which it was conceived, with all the same inequities. It’s America in microcosm, and it needs an underclass to serve its rich.

And this, for me, is where the film really shows its chops. Because it’s not just a silly fantasy about tiny people – Mrs Pepperpot or The Borrowers for a grown-up audience. It’s a meticulously realised abstraction, with all implications scrupulously examined. We learn, for example, of dictators shrinking political dissidents, of prisoners shrunk against their will. We learn of tiny refugees, using the miniaturisation process to aid their illegal passage into other countries; of full-sized tax payers angry that the small people contribute less yet still get a vote; of entrepreneurs who seek to exploit, to become rich off the back of this noble experiment. It pulls no punches, lets no one off the hook, and yet it’s still marvellously entertaining – funny even – and a real delight to watch.

There’s been some criticism of the supposed ‘white saviour’ narrative, and the suggestion that Vietnamese character Ngoc  Lan Tran (Hong Chau) is a racist stereotype. But I really don’t see these things. Sure, Paul Safronik attempts to ‘save’ Ngoc, who is an amputee; he’s keen to reassert his sense of self by helping to improve her prosthetic foot. But she rejects his help, and – when she finally capitulates – he completely fails. She might seem like a victim (a political activist, shrunk by her government, the sole survivor of an illegal  immigration, her leg lost in the process, working as a cleaner for the rich people in Leisureland), but she’s not: she operates entirely on her own terms. She owns the cleaning business, we realise; she employs Paul, puts him to work; it’s she who rescues him, in fact. And I don’t know how she’s a stereotype, unless it’s her accent, which Hong Chau says she copied from people she knew as a child (“I grew up around Vietnamese refugees, around people who don’t speak English as a first language”). Any which way, it’s hard to see how a film where the female lead is Asian, disabled, strong and independent, can be considered retrograde.

In short (sorry), this is a fascinating piece of cinema, one that – I’m sure – will bear repeated watching. I find myself utterly captivated by it, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who likes a film that makes them think.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

 

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Nebraska

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07/09/14

The last time they were handing out Oscars, this low-budget picture by Alexander Payne managed to rack up six nominations, without actually winning anything. In retrospect, it’s easy to see why it was so highly regarded. From the note-perfect performances of the ensemble cast, through to the ravishing black and white images of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, (landscapes which evoke memories of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show – praise indeed) this is a fabulous little film that surely deserves to find a wider audience on DVD.

Veteran actor, Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant, a cantankerous old curmudgeon living in Montana with his fabulously potty-mouthed wife, Kate (June Squibb.) When he receives a promotional flier in the post notifying him that he may have won a million dollars, he becomes obsessed with the notion of travelling to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his ‘winnings.’ Since he can’t actually drive, he keeps trying to walk there, even though it’s a distance of around a thousand miles. His son, Will (David Grant) tries in vain to persuade him that he’s wasting his time, but finally decides to drive him there, if only to spend a little quality time with the father who, because of a lifelong addiction for alcohol, has been notably absent for much of Will’s childhood. Will decides to break up the trip with a visit to Woody’s family en route. But when news gets out that Woody is going to be a millionaire, old rivalries and feuds come bubbling to the surface…

Alexander Payne doesn’t make many movies but this one must rank as his finest achievement. Both Dern and Squibb turn in standout performances, the dialogue is bleakly funny throughout and for once, here’s an American movie that’s prepared to examine the shabby underbelly of a recession-stricken USA. Nice too to see Bob Odenkirk as Will’s older brother, Ross, a role that’s very different to his sleazy turn as Saul in Breaking Bad. Plaudits too for finding a genuinely heart-warming (but never cheesy) conclusion to a story that you know from the outset, is not destined to end happily.

If like me, you let this one slip away on the big screen, here’s the perfect opportunity to catch up with it. You won’t be disappointed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney