Saturday, January 13, 2018

Downsizing; or why less is usually (but not in this case) more with Alexander Payne's films

In an interview with Leo Biga regarding Downsizing (2017) nearly two years ago, Alexander Payne was asked about the challenges of directing actors in front of a green screen. He responded in part that: “the acting style should not suffer from the means of production. But, it’ll be fine. You know, who cares, it’s just a movie.” Towards the end of that same article, meanwhile, Payne was quoted as saying that “a movie is a movie is a movie and we have enough to make this movie, so it’ll be fine.”

There are two ways to read the film in the context of Payne’s career—one, suggested above, is that the film was a technological experiment in figuring out how to tell a new kind of story, on a much more logistically complicated scale, with the end results being what they may. Downsizing may also be read as a metaphor for the arc of Payne’s body of work so far. The film is a science-fiction comedy about a man, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who undergoes a new procedure that shrinks people to 5 inches tall so that even working class folks can live like kings and queens in a miniaturized theme park world where the use of smaller resources means the dollar can be stretched much further. The film’s weaknesses are not for lack of trying, and perhaps even the reverse is true. Payne and collaborator Jim Taylor spent parts of a decade reworking the script as the project struggled to find funding, and it shows in the final product, which tries awkwardly to tie together several different storylines, characters, settings, and themes. 

Conceptually, the science fiction world of Downsizing had the potential to be far more interesting than its bland main character--a ratio that wouldn't seem to play to Payne's strengths. All great science fiction is essentially allegorical, a means to use impossible futuristic technology to comment on issues in modern society. And what the downsizing procedure symbolizes ultimately isn't articulated in any clear or forceful way. The very title, "downsizing," knowingly teases us with an economic critique that never lands. The film’s muddled critique of class echoes criticisms of Payne’s earlier films, while the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding why this procedure would be attractive, and for whom (both those shrunk and those doing the shrinking), seem largely elided. As Derek Nystrom has written, “that Payne's cinema is centrally about class is clear--or at least would be clear to any culture that did not struggle mightily to repress this fundamental condition of social life [. . .] Yet the class condescension of these films is complicated by their portrayals of middle-class characters.”

Because of their ambivalent fondness towards middle class and working class characters, Payne’s films depict a class-based society in ways that most other mainstream and quasi-independent films most often avoid. If a lack of financial resources is acknowledged at all in other movies, it is usually (following Hollywood’s neoliberal logic) merely a plot device motivating the main character to work harder in order to achieve their dreams. In Downsizing, it is the opposite—the lack of resources appears to initially force an ironic sense of defeatism for the two primary characters, accepting that in the “big” world they’ll never enjoy the economic comfort they desire. At the same time, the film eventually works towards the admirable but predictable conclusion—one which completely negates the film’s opening class critique—that there are more important things in life than money.

But the bigger issue here is that, as with many Payne films, while the economic struggles of these middle class characters are often alluded to in direct, and indirect, ways, the larger institutions creating and perpetuating this economic inequality are avoided altogether. Why is Paul in the position he is? (his ailing mother seems to be the plot device here, but there were so many other possibilities to explore). Why are there so many individuals and businesses out there so anxious to cynically exploit his economic desperation? (On a related note, the very name of the utopic paradise, “Leisureland,” begs comparisons to Walt’s Disneyland—which grew out in part from his love of model trains and, more importantly, the miniaturized toy landscapes which accompanied them—and to his belief that a scaled down world is one much easier to control. That could have been an equally fascinating take on Downsizing’s premise, and one which might highlight the issues of class in ways that don’t ultimately negate them as minimal).

So why a metaphor for Payne’s career? The film’s opening 30 minutes or so are squarely within the filmmaker’s comfort zone—a middle-aged white Midwestern (Nebraskan) male going through a series of personal and professional crises, before then deciding that a journey to a different location might offer some answer to his problems. Like Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendants, the “hero’s” journey is initiated at least in part by a separation from his significant other. One could arguably also include David (Will Forte) in Nebraska here, as well. But unlike many of his earlier films, the main protagonist does experience some growth in the end. Though, to be honest, it’s an open question whether Downsizing ultimately needed to follow this particular character at all.

Meanwhile, it’s the more interesting remainder of the film that perhaps best typifies a filmmaker moving outside his comfort zone to explore a larger world out there. The problem structurally by then is that the movie is too locked in to Paul’s underwhelming journey of redemption to fully explore this vast miniaturized world, its diverse group of inhabitants, its playful attitude towards American ignorance, or the glaring issues of racial and class inequality touched upon. In many ways, the film’s closest companion might be The Descendants, a script which he and Taylor were working on around the same time as Downsizing back in the late aughts. Both are films which move beyond the abovementioned comfort zone to explore stories about the value of land and other resources as a way—intentionally or otherwise—to mount a critique of class inequality.

And, in both cases, the message is muddled by the films’ respective failures to commit fully to the political and historical consequences of the questions they raise (Payne’s said in the past that he’s more interested in stories than ideology, which is fair, but some of those stories raise a question which demands a messier and dramatically interesting answer). As one example, Downsizing’s admittedly spot-on cynicism towards the slogan of “going green” as being little more than a corporate joke—as a way for companies to make more money while feigning progressive values—feels like it would’ve been much more insightful circa 2007, around the time it was written. Instead, it just reiterates a cynicism about the sincerity of capitalist endeavors motivated first by profit, which then also has the unintended side effect of raising doubt on the sincerity of the film’s own ambitious message.

Considering its near epic ambitions, Downsizing is Payne’s weakest title to date, even though conceptually its perhaps by far his most interesting. His welcome turn back to the broader comedic tone of his first films (Citizen Ruth, Election) lacks the insightful satiric bite of those initial efforts. Ironically, the basic premises of Payne’s other films—pregnant woman considering abortion and trapped within the culture wars, a high school president election, widowed dad takes road trip to daughter’s wedding, college buddies celebrate the last days of bachelorhood with trip to wine country, widowed husband/father decides what to do with real estate—could not sound less original or interesting as concepts on paper. Of course, high concepts can be overrated, and often (as in Downsizing) cause as many narrative problems as solutions.

Payne’s often noted that he just follows the “story” when coming up with a new idea for a movie. But the irony there is that structurally most of those narratives themselves are not usually that engaging. Instead, what makes Payne perhaps the single greatest chronicler of American middle-class populism onscreen, aside from his impeccable sense of mise-en-scene, is that he and his fellow collaborators are singularly unique at constructing not story, but characters and moments (that Paul is by far the least interesting protagonist he’s ever devised is not at all insignificant in articulating Downsizing’s problems—days after watching the film, I’d already forgotten the character’s name, despite the fact that a running joke throughout the film is how other characters are constantly mispronouncing it). When it comes to strongly structured narratives, Payne’s films are, technically speaking, often saddled with, for example, second act problems—seductive openings and deeply moving endings, but often something of a (sideways) struggle to get from one to the other. When the characters and mise-en-scene work, this issue is less noticeable. (Most of Payne’s other films have been based on novels, and the presence of an existing structure perhaps served the filmmaker well in the past.)

Science Fiction is a tricky genre to pull off. The very high concept nature of most sci-fi stories by design implies that they tend to be allegories for the modern world (Downsizing is ultimately a metaphor for . . . something, but what?), and within those inherently narratively and conceptually unrealistic stories, characters are often archetypes themselves. Creating three-dimensional and grounded human characters within such high concept stories is, I would argue, thus more challenging than within some other genres.

The film’s casting, as with other Payne films, is a mixed bag, and the fondness for skit comedy actors again produces uneven results. While I find Nebraska to be Payne’s most visually and aurally beautiful film, it was also hard to take Will Forte seriously as the film’s embattled but loyal son. Similarly, Bob Odenkirk—whose work on Mr. Show and Better Call Saul I absolutely adore—seems to awkwardly play his character as somewhere between a real human being and another exaggerated sketch character (particularly, since his wannabe media celebrity character so strongly evokes memories of Mr. Show to begin with). The presence of talented comedians Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel take audiences out of the intensely dramatic The Descendants. Similarly, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudekis feel out of place in Downsizing, despite the former’s admirable attempts at more dramatic work in recent years. The funniest moments in Payne’s films--as is the case in Downsizing--tend to feature performers equally at home with comedy and drama. On the subject of casting, Damon fails to land much of an impact (it’s also safe to say that, outside of Bourne, he isn’t much of a bankable star anymore, and it’s been suggested that Payne’s hand was forced in this regard in order to get funding.)

What ultimately shrinks the film (sorry, couldn't resist), aside from a coherent idea about what the political or economic significance of Leisureland is, is its dependence in the end on the tired cliché of the “white savior” narrative (confounded further by some of the negative publicity surrounding Damon’s condescending comments on gender equality recently). Either way, since Paul doesn’t emerge as a particularly interesting character—sympathetic perhaps, but not in a uniquely compelling or engaging way—the audience is less invested in his journey by the time we arrive at Leisureland and are presented with a much more interesting cast of characters (here the other casting choices, such as the always dependable Christoph Waltz, really begin to pay off better). But in the end, it’s Paul who has to find his place in this new world, and who utilizes his privileged medical skills to help others in need.

Part of the beauty of Payne’s films has long been that the main characters don’t really evolve—at best, they have fleeting and moving moments of catharsis to release their emotions, but in the end they remain (true to life) the people they were in the beginning. But part of the beauty too is that they seem to genuinely emerge from, and inhabit, the landscapes around them.