Alexander Payne is not exactly the first name you would think of when it comes to science fiction. The man has a history of road trip comedies, average Midwestern men, mid-life crises, and the colorful miscreants of society. The fact that the director of Sideways and The Descendants is tackling The Incredible Shrinking Man is a bold move. Payne is outside his comfort zone with Downsizing, and it shows at points. While never quite satisfying the possibilities of its premise, Downsizing is still worth watching for its memorable moments and for the sheer brilliance of one outstanding performance.
In the not-too-distant future, science has developed the technology to shrink human beings to five inches tall, approximately 1/100th of their size. A middle-income couple can live like the top one percent because their money goes further. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a schlubby, regular guy suffering from the ennui of a job he hates and a life that feels unfulfilled. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to undergo the downsizing procedure, which is irreversible. Paul’s wife backs out at the last minute but he doesn’t find out until after he’s gone small. Now with a McMansion all to himself, Paul has to readjust to what he thought his new life would be like. He moves into a condo and shirks the offers to join the parties of his hedonist neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz). Paul finally decides to live life and embraces new experiences, the biggest befriending Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese cleaning lady who was downsized against her will for being an overseas political activist. Paul feels drawn to this woman and she opens his eyes to the larger world around him.
The strangest part of Payne’s movie is that the main thrust of the story could have been told without all of the science fiction dross. This is very much a romantic comedy/drama that follows the formula of a man jilted at the altar who has to get his life back together, finds someone new who changes his perspective on life, and then they get together by the end. You could have plucked this story and set it in an ordinary world and it still would have worked, which begs the question whether the world of Downsizing is properly applied. The consumer commentary seems muddled, with the rationale for downsizing being helping the planet, reducing the population so to speak, but really it’s an escape into a fantasy of wealth. People are downsizing so they can live in luxury and leisure. This should set up Payne for his incisive brand of satire as he skewers the selfish and self-righteous foibles of mankind, except that doesn’t really happen. Sure, eventually in the second half the movie opens up its tiny world a little wider, revealing the not-so-hidden subculture of immigrant labor toiling away to keep everything stable and pretty. It’s obvious social commentary and rarely does it go a step further than just recognition. And so the film becomes another in a long line of movies about a man who must be shaken from his malaise and enjoy the possibilities of life he never knew existed. Downsizing eventually ignores its sci-fi conceit to tell a relatively ordinary tale of self-actualization.
Payne’s premise would have best been explored through the more open parameters of a television series. Downsizing is an interesting concept that leads to other natural questions over how this tiny world operates and also how it interacts with the larger community. There’s a small scene where a drunk overhears Paul’s plan to shrink and argues that little people shouldn’t be granted the same voting rights as “normal-sized” citizens. The normies contribute more to society and should be given more credit, he argues, before being shooed away. This political division could have made for an interesting topic of reflection itself, but like many of Payne’s pit stops, it comes and goes after whetting your appetite for further examination. What about a story where downsizing is a punishment to do away with the “undesirables” of a nation? A TV series would have allowed more room to explore, with finer nuance, the details and possibilities of this fanciful world. Payne allows his movie to breathe, taking extended jaunts on different ideas but rarely enough to satisfy your sense of curiosity. The last act takes place at the original downsized colony in Norway, though at their diminutive size I wonder if it took them months to travel in Dusan’s yacht. It’s meant to think about what will come after humankind has passed the point of no return when it comes to climate change. Paul has to rethink what he wants his legacy to be and what meaning his life will have, which then pushes him into a rather simplistic choice of go with the girl or the cause. Given the rest of the movie’s focus, you shouldn’t be surprised what decision he ultimately makes.
However, the real reason you should legitimately see Downsizing is for the astounding, star-making, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her performance by Hong Chau (Inherent Vice, Big Little Lies). I cannot recall another movie where a character comes in at the halfway mark and just takes over completely, single-handedly lifting the movie up. Every moment she is onscreen is made better. You’ve never seen a character in a mainstream movie quite like Ngoc Lan Tran. She’s a political dissident, amputee, and lower-class cleaning woman who teaches Paul about the class divides. Tran is tragic, comic, caustic, lovable, and Chau is an acting revelation. I’ve read several reviews that found her to be a cringe-worthy, borderline racist depiction of an Asian woman meant to be laughed at, and I strongly disagree. At no point was I laughing at Tran because of her status, her ethnicity, or her broken English cadences. I was laughing because she was a force of nature that blew away the pretensions of others, that cut to the chase, and spoke her mind in a carefree and honest manner. Her matter-of-fact affectations are so perfectly delivered in accordance with the character’s personality. There are moments where her character is being set up for one thing and Tran goes entirely in another direction, and whereas you might have laughed at the start she surprisingly earns other emotions. Take for instance a scene where Dusan tries to ditch her by making an excuse about a sudden travel commitment. Tran takes this moment and turns it into a genuinely poignant monologue about the unexpected nature of fate. By the end she’s crying out of sheer elation, and those tears are not meant for ridicule. Downsizing realizes what an asset it has and makes her the deserved focal point of the second half. You’ll fall in love with her too. Chau doesn’t just deserve an Oscar nomination; she deserves to win everything.
Downsizing is an episodic high-concept comedy where the shrinking is irrelevant to the main storyline that evolves over two plus hours. This is an adult movie that explores some mature topics with surprising time and scrutiny, and then it can also be a simplistic rom-com that misses the mark on larger, Swiftian social satire. It’s another story in a long line of disaffected, middle-aged men finding their groove again, except then it becomes the story of a Vietnamese activist and her unique persona. Hong Chau is the reason you should see Downsizing above all. She doesn’t so much steal her scenes as just take full ownership over the back half of the movie. Her performance is so uniformly excellent that you wish the rest of Payne’s uneven movie could meet her commitment. There are a lot of ideas here that seem to get brushed aside for the conventional formula of a romantic union, even if the pairing is rather unconventional. Downsizing is an entertaining movie that doesn’t quite amount to more than the sum of its little parts.
Nate’s Grade: B
Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has a monster of a problem. She’s lost her job, her boyfriend (Dan Stevens), and is forced to move back home to her parents’ empty house. She gets a job at her childhood friend Oscar’s (Jason Sudeikis) bar. Then one night the news is filled with a 100-foot tall lizard monster magically appearing in Seoul, South Korea. This lizard only seems to appear at a certain hour, and Gloria realizes that she is somehow connected to this giant beast and responsible for its movements. What’s a working girl to do?
Colossal is a different kind of monster movie, that’s for certain. It’s got a dynamite premise that allows for plenty of different tones. There’s an inherent wackiness in a party girl discovering that her actions have a very extreme set of consequences. For a while it’s a slice-of-life picture about coming home and readjusting to the rigors of adult life, something Gloria has been putting on hold while soaking up the pleasures of New York City and the patience of her live-in boyfriend. She’s picking up the pieces of her life and sometimes an acquisition of furniture like a futon can feel like a small triumph. There’s a simple rhythm to these early scenes and writer/director Nacho Vigilondo (Time Crimes) slowly reveals more and more about character histories and relationships, remarkably free of ungainly exposition. There is a remarkably accomplished and sly sense of discovery with the movie, first with the implications and abilities of Gloria’s monster avatar and with the movie itself. There’s a cheeky sense of fun watching Gloria discover her connections to the monster and the special effects are pretty good for such an odd indie film. What are the monster’s intentions? Where does it come from? Why is this patch of land and Gloria so special? Fortunately Vigilondo doesn’t stop there. From a rules standpoint, there’s only so much to learn through trial and error, but it gets even more complicated when Gloria decides to tell her buddies the news. Now it’s about keeping her secret and making sure these often drunk, often-misbehaving guys don’t cause an international incident.
Hathaway (The Intern) is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking and she completely owns the movie, which she filmed while in her second trimester of pregnancy (explains the omnipresence of heavy coats). She has to play a woman who has self-absorbed and self-destructive qualities while not shutting out audience empathy. Hathaway brings out multiple dimensions in her flawed character. She can be cowed easily through guilt and intimidation, failing to meet up to her own standards she holds for herself, but she can also derive a quiet strength that pushes her to take a stand and make a change. Hathaway is apt at the blending of comedy and drama and she’s a star with genuine acting chops. Despite her struggles and setbacks, we want her to succeed and she feels all too human.
It’s midway through where Colossal makes a sharp turn into territory I didn’t see coming and reveals its true intentions, which are much darker and uncomfortable. Fair warning to readers, I’m going to try and avoid specific spoilers but even talking about the second half of the film serves as a spoiler in itself, so keep reading if you so choose. Beforehand, the movie has presented itself as a fun, slightly whimsical take on a down-on-her-luck party girl discovering a weird power. The monster serves as metaphor and I thought it was going to be a relatively obvious metaphor for alcoholism, something she had to work through and get her life back together, putting away childish things and integrating back to the world of responsible adults she’s been avoiding. Then the turn happens and you realize that the monster isn’t a metaphor for alcoholism but for abusive relationships. As you can imagine, this is more or less when the comedy slowly comes to a halt.
It backdoors you into reconsidering everything that’s come before and ingeniously plays the charms of its actors against your preconceived notions. It’s a movie about abuse and manipulation and the capitulation to that abuse. Whether the source of that abuse is derived from alcoholism is up for debate, but I insist it’s a complicated mixture of substance abuse, unchecked entitlement, and toxic masculinity. Oscar becomes our villain, and it may feel like a sudden shift to many viewers, especially those who were expecting him and Gloria to end up romantically linked by film’s end. Colossal can be seen following a more familiar rom-com formula of the girl who goes home, reconnects with old friends, and becomes romantically linked, and the movie uses your expectations against you. Because of that, you may excuse Oscar’s behavior, downplay it, and rationalize that he, like Gloria, is trying to gather his bearings and grow up. That’s not the case. That’s not the case at all, and the movie explores this notion by giving a serial abuser new unfettered power to endanger a multitude of human lives, people who are invisible to his angry outbursts and thus made even more expendable in his mind.
This tonal turn dominates the second half and I can imagine many people will be put off and disappointed by how heavy and uncomfortable a giant monster movie has become. An emotionally abusive person will stop at any manipulation to keep people within his or her orbit so they constantly have targets for abuse. We get several scenes that examine this dynamic as Oscar tears apart his friends one veiled menacing monologue after another, pushing their insecurities and influencing control over them. He’s the “nice guy” who thinks the world owes him more than he’s ever gotten, but a choice reoccurring flashback reveals he’s always been this way. Oscar didn’t turn into a jerk, he was this way from the start, and he’s just gotten better at hiding his darker intentions, and he’ll likely always be this way without redemption. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) digs into his character’s misanthropy without going overboard, which makes him a far more realistic depiction of an abuser taking advantage of other people’s good graces and chances.
Colossal transformed into one of the more unexpected and surprisingly emotionally involving stories I’ve seen recently. I was set to enjoy the silly monster movie shenanigans being turned on their head with oblivious Americans unknowingly wrecking havoc on the Eastern world. Instead of global consumer commentary I got something much more personal and unexpected. I never knew where the movie was going to go next and found myself more and more intrigued by every scene. If the filmmakers could upend my expectations and keep me on the edge of my seat, then they did their jobs. The finale is magnificently executed as it employs just about all the rules we’ve learned concerning the monsters, space-time, and the sour relationship between Oscar and Gloria. It feels like a true culmination of events that is dramatically and emotionally cathartic.
Much more than advertised, Colossal is an exciting movie for how different it ends up becoming, and yet it’s still everything as advertised. Hathaway is highly enjoyable during her character’s various highs and lows trying to make sense of her life. Vigilondo shapes an unpredictable narrative that subverts and overcomes formula expectations and audience sympathies. It’s an involving and personal tale given an expansive scope and feel. Monster as metaphor is not a new concept. It’s an externalization of our fears and labors and an expression of their cataclysmic destructive power. It also provides a focal point for a hero to overcome, and Colossal feels like somebody took a slice-of-life indie mumblecore observational character piece and gave it a dash of fantastical genre elements. I want to watch it again to see if I can catch nuances I missed, especially relating to characterization and performance. If you can hang on after the movie makes its midway shift, I think Colossal is a unique filmgoing experience that sees its vision to the end.
Nate’s Grade: B+
In 1936, Jesse Owens (Stephen James) is an American track star that seems destined for magnificent glory. Under the guidance of his coach, Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis), from THE Ohio State University, Owens is smashing track and field records. The culmination of his athleticism occurs at the Berlin Olympics, where Owens earns multiple gold medals and shows Adolph Hitler just how masterful his master race is.
It’s difficult to declare Race a bad movie but it’s so formulaic and by-the-numbers that I walked away thinking that Jesse Owens deserved a much better movie. I kept waiting for the movie to properly communicate the totality of what Owens accomplished, let alone in a time period where the culture at home told him he was an inferior American citizen, and it just never coalesced into a stronger message. We’re talking about a man who bested the best of the world in front of Hitler. This is ready made for cinematic drama, and perhaps that’s the problem with the screenplay by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Frankie & Alice) because it always seems to fall back on the lazy and expected choice. Part of this is the reality that Owens was just that good as a runner; we only see him lose once in the entire movie. This anticlimax makes it difficult to stir up plenty of suspense around the larger and larger stages for the sports triumphs. The knowledge of Owens’ wins may be commonplace but we should still feel the stirrings of good storytelling and payoffs to well-established work, and that’s just not there. I loved watching the deluge of unhappy Nazi reaction shots to Owens’ victories (never enough footage of unhappy Nazis) but that doesn’t count as a satisfying conclusion to Owens’ story.
The character of Owens is somewhat lost in Race. It’s reminiscent of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 where the character of Robinson was kind of, well, boring. He’s a character who endures the suffering and indignities of others and perseveres, and this is likely why both films turn their stories of African-American tales into buddy pictures with Strong and Supportive White Men. Much of Race is presented as a buddy picture with Owens and Snyder, and both actors have such an amiable chemistry that they sort of treat the entire movie like a laid back adventure. They’re easing on through a segregated America. Too much of the movie is Owens and Snyder just cracking wise and going from scene to scene. James left a stronger impression as John Lewis in last year’s Selma. He’s too often merely stoic without more to work with. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) is right in his comfort zone with his performance and doesn’t stray far from his range. I credit the film for not ignoring some of the messier parts of Owens’ story, namely his out-of-wedlock young daughter and him cheating on his hometown girl with a fame-seeking starlet. He’s allowed to be seen making mistakes, but the movie doesn’t allow him to live with them (note: not referring to his daughter as a “mistake”). Whenever Owens might be in a horrible predicament from his own internal decision-making, the movie almost callously breezes by without much contemplation. It’s as if every conflict is in service to the Main Conflict – sticking it to Hitler. The pressure to bow out of the Olympics to make a statement about the treatment of black people in America could have been a soul-bearing moment, but we just move along and barely feel the weight of the pressure. Yes, we know that Owens will travel abroad and win golden glory, but make the decision count.
Another aspect that dooms Race to its limited appeal is the mediocrity of its direction and, in particular, how shockingly terrible the movie is edited. Director Stephen Hopkins seems to have been in movie jail ever since 1998’s Lost in Space. He’s only shot one movie between that bomb and Race, which happened to be The Reaping, a 2007 movie I almost liked by its twist ending. He doesn’t exactly bring much to the material to elevate the races or seem that interested in taking advantageous of the suspense opportunities. There’s one great sequence where Owens first enters the Olympic stadium and the camera tracks his movements where you feel the awe. There aren’t enough moments like this that take full advantage of telling Owens’ story in a visual medium. The other technical misstep is that this is one of the worst edited movies I’ve ever watched in a theater. If you generally pay attention to the editing, it’s generally a bad sign since it’s a facet of filmmaking that is best made invisible. There is one sequence where Owens sits in Snyder’s office and the 180-degree rule is broken over ten times… in one scene! The editing will frequently flip is scene orientation, jumping back and around and creating subtle visual compositions that create incongruity in the brain. Part of this blame deserves to be laid with Hopkins, who chose to shoot his film at these uncooperative angles. It was something that bothered me throughout and would rip me out of the movie.
The most perplexing storyline in Race involves the very positive treatment reserved for a controversial filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), best known for her propaganda films declaring the power and righteousness of Hitler’s Third Reich. Huh, why does a movie celebrating American heroes spend do much time positively portraying a Nazi propagandist? She becomes a translator for Goebbels and the American Olympic committee, but she’s also determined to have her vision respected when it comes to her Olympic documentary that is being produced by the Nazis. She doesn’t seem to mind about Owens trouncing the Aryan myth of racial superiority because she just wants to make the best movie and Owens is her storyline. She is portrayed as a sympathetic go-between for the Americans, someone fighting within a corrupt system to maintain her dignity and ownership in an industry that is dominated by men (she’s criticized for wearing “masculine” clothing). I’ll admit a general ignorance to Riefenstahl’s life and career outside of her most famous documentaries, which I should continue to stress are Nazi propaganda films, but this woman was a member of the Nazi party and responsible for some of the most indelible and damaging imagery justifying Hitler’s genocide, and to prop her up as a character worth rooting for and a champion to Owens just felt wrong.
Has there ever been a more self-satisfied yet facile title than Race? The double meaning is a bit too obvious and yet simple enough to be annoying. In a way, the title encapsulates the movie as a whole. It’s well-meaning but far too by-the-numbers and satisfied that it’s doing Important Work honoring an American sports legend when it’s barely giving us much of a reason to care about him as a person and less reason to root for him other than added Nazi discomfort. Owens becomes a boring centerpiece in his own movie, and his relationship with Snyder feels too ill defined, repeatedly approaching buddy comedy. The historical asides are momentarily interesting but don’t add up to much. The movie has some strikingly awful editing and lackluster direction that hobbles the storytelling. It’s a movie that hits all the checklists for sports biopic but won’t veer too far from its predicated formula. There’s a short scene at the very end that hints at what kind of better movie Race might have been. After his worldwide validation at the Berlin Olympics, Owens comes home to America and is forced to use the service entrance for his own honorary dinner. This American hero has to shamefully take the back entrance to be celebrated. It’s a stark wake-up call just how far the country had to go as far as race relations. This national cognitive dissonance, celebration and segregation, would be ripe for a searing human drama with plenty of emotion. That would be a good movie. Race is only an okay movie, and given Owens’ place in history, that’s not good enough.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I finally caught one of the biggest surprise hits of the year, the raunchy comedy We’re the Millers, and while fitfully entertaining, mostly in its second half, I have to wonder what made this film the hit it was, despite lack of clear comedy competition. The setup involves four people (Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts, Will Poulter) posing as a model nuclear family to smuggle drugs into the United States. You’d think the difficulty would be getting back into this country, but no, it’s all about keeping their cover, especially when a vacationing DEA agent (Nick Offerman) pals around. The flimsy setup gets much better in the second half as the false family dynamics and roles are skewered, particularly an educational kissing session between siblings and mother. I can also see the markings of why audiences gravitated to this otherwise so-so comedy. It offers each member to contribute meaningfully, it gives each a lesson and a triumph, and they form a likable bond. So while the joke payoffs may whiff, there’s a character payoff to pick up the slack. Plus there’s an Aniston stripping sequence to showcase the fitness of the forty-something actress. The jokes settle for easy vulgarity a bit too often but every now and then the film surprises. Sudeikis is slyly enjoyable channeling a young smarmy smartass Chevy Chase, and Offerman is hilarious, enough to make you wish the movie followed his family. We’re the Millers reminds me of the 90s works of the Farrelly Brothers, a mixture of gross-out gags, slapstick, uninspired villains, and a dash of sentiment. We’re the Millers is an acceptable comedy, not a great one, but after its quarter billion dollar box-office riches, get ready to meet the Millers all over again.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Broad and oafish for political satire, The Campaign has some decent belly-laughs to it with the main point that our national political environment has become a parody of itself. It’s Will Ferrell doing his usual boorish boob stuff and then there’s Zach Galifianakis as an effete, weird, family values doofus. When it gets looney, The Campaign is at its best. I loved a town hall that descended into a mob chanting their willful opposition to Rainbow Land. I enjoyed that Ferrell’s punching of innocent creatures was turned into a running gag. Having a racist old man pay his Asian maid to talk like an old black mammy because he misses the good old times? That is downright inspired and I giggle just thinking about it. The campaign commercials were perfect, and who knew Dylan McDermott could be this funny as a political ninja? The problem is that the movie works best as a series of scenes but doesn’t add up to much more. Some of those scenes are hilarious, and others are just passable lowbrow entertainment. Then the movie tries to foster a happy ending, with the evil business tycoons (an obvious avatar of the Koch brothers) foiled. I do not believe that satire can have a happy ending. It undercuts the angry, sardonic message of the movie. It’s just not the right fit for the genre. Alas, The Campaign tries to insert some pathos into the mix and it feels false and far too tidy. As for summer comedies, the movie has a few killer jokes and an amiable presence, plus a very short running time so as not to wear out its welcome. Like most politicians argue… you could do worse.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The true joy of Horrible Bosses, besides the vicarious premise, is the interaction and camaraderie of a rock-solid cast of comedians. Jason Bateman (Juno), Jason Sudekis (TV’s Saturday Night Live), and Charlie Day (TV’s It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) play the three put upon friends who conspire to kill their not so very nice bosses, respectively played by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, and Jennifer Aniston. The comedy is amusing from start to finish, prone to plenty of guffaws and a few big laughs. The film strikes a delicate tone while being nasty without being too brutish or oft putting. This is not a scorched-earth sort of comedy despite its murderous implications. The guys are more bumbling than threatening, which makes even their criminal pursuits clumsy and endearing. It’s got plenty of surprises and I enjoyed how most of the storylines and players wound up back together. It’s a satisfying movie that veers in some unexpected directions. But the real reason to see Horrible Bosses is just how damn funny the cast is. The snappy screenplay establishes a solid comedic setup and lets the leads bounce off one another to great hilarity. Whether arguing over who would be most raped in prison, the ins and outs of killing on a budget, or the dubious nature of hiring hit men under the “men seeking men” section online, the three leads all bring something different to the comedic table, and watching them interact and play around with the situation is a delight. It’s a buddy comedy with a dash of Arsenic and Old Lace. While the characters are more exaggerated stock types, the comedy, kept at a near breathless pace by director Seth Gordon (King of Kong, Four Christmases), is refreshing, smartly vulgar, and not afraid to get dark. Watching Aniston play against type as a sex-crazed man-eater is enjoyable, but hands down, no one does sadism with the same joy as Spacey. That man could melt a glacier with the intense power of his glare. Horrible Bosses is a relative blast of a comedy, one that maintains a steady output of laughs with some easy targets.
Nate’s Grade: B+