(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Aaargh. There’s a really good Science Fiction movie struggling to get out of Downsizing, but the one we see, as written and directed by Alexander Payne, isn’t it. I am, for once, not going to comment on the biological nonsense of reducing humans to a height of 13 cm. I will grant the movie that one big deviation from reality. Where I’m not going to be so lenient, however, is in forgiving the direction ultimately taken by the film’s story after the shrinking is explored. While the earliest parts of the film do have their moments and intriguing details, the film soon goes off in a direction that is markedly less interesting than anticipated. Rather than keep going in the direction of social criticism, Downsizing settles for the end of the world and, in going so, seems to lose its way. The film’s first act does seem to set up a far more ferocious film that the one that follows: It puts all the pieces in place for a reckoning about the sustainability of “small wealth” (considering that it depends on temporary externalities and a precarious agreement with “the bigs”—consider the havoc that even one common house cat could wreak) and an even deeper satire of capitalism run amok … but no. None of the film’s disappointment comes from the actor—Matt Damon is a perfect American everyman, Christoph Waltz is an intriguing Lothario, and the entire film is stolen by Hong Chau as soon as she shows up. Alas, it’s the script that fumbles midway through and doesn’t recover as much as misdirects away from the themes it sets up in its first half. What a shame. At least Downsizing tries something and fumbles, which is more than we can say for most movies these days.
(On Cable TV, May 2014) I watch a curiously low number of straight-up dramas, usually out of an unfair suspicion that they are not as interesting as my usual genre movies. But then there are films such as The Descendants, absorbing from the get-go and witty enough to keep my attention until the end. Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’s novel (a literary origin that can be felt in the complex back-stories for most characters) by veteran screenwriter/director Alexander Payne, The Descendants works partially because it never quite does the expected thing, and partly because it can count on an exceptional, world-weary performance by George Clooney. Expectations are quickly subverted, as the opening monologue discusses the disillusionment of day-to-day life in Hawaii and then moves on with a surprising lack of sentimentality in discussing the burden of a man dealing with the terminal coma of his wife. (It’s a measure of how unconventional The Descendants can be when the brain-dead wife gets verbally harangued on her deathbed by grieving family members no less than three times.) When the quasi-widower discovers the unfaithfulness of his nearly-ex-wife, it’s up to him and his daughters to deal with the situation. Blend in an extended subplot about land stewardship, and you’ve got the makings of an interesting script no matter the execution. But Payne’s touch suitably lets Clooney own the lead character, and display a wide range of emotions that more than reaffirm his abilities as an actor. Shailene Woodley has a career-launching role as a teenage girl who ends up far less rebellious than initially portrayed, while Robert Forster has a small but remarkable role as a punch-happy older man. (Judy Greer also makes a striking appearance as a cheated-upon wife who’s a great deal less forgiving than she initially appears.) Often unexpectedly funny, The Descendants offers a slice of life for characters thrown in a difficult situation, eventually reaching an accommodation with their new circumstances. By the time the film ends, we’re reasonably certain that they will be all right… which is for the best given how much we’ve learn to like those characters.