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
Rest easy fans of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, because Gone Girl the movie is pretty much exactly Gone Girl the novel. There were rumors that Flynn and director David Fincher had drastically retooled the controversial ending, but this was only premature speculation. Fun fact: it’s easy to tell the people who didn’t read the book in your audience because they will more than likely be the ones who groan once the end credits kick in. The fealty to the book is a relief because, as we book readers know from those late nights compulsively turning Flynn’s pages, the real star of the movie is the story, which was ready-made for a grand, pulpy thriller, and that is Gone Girl the movie. Whether it’s anything more than an exceptionally well made thriller is up for debate
Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing from her supposedly perfect life. Her husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), starts off as the tortured, grieving husband. He comes home one day to find his home wrecked and his wife missing. The police (Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit) are worrisome about Nick’s abnormal reaction to his wife’s disappearance. He doesn’t seem to know much about his wife. He seems like he’s hiding something. Even Nick’s twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) has her doubts that Nick is telling the full truth. Amy’s diary paints a different portrait of her husband, a man prone to increasing anger, mostly stemming from the loss of his job and a relocation from New York City to Missouri. Most of Nick’s anger is focused squarely on Amy, enough that she fears for her life. As various clues keep piling up and Nick’s public behavior appears suspicious, the media spotlight transforms him from victim to prime suspect.
No question having an artist of Fincher’s caliber raises the quality level to its highest degree, but it’s the perfect marriage of filmmaker and material that allows this movie to soar. Both Fincher and Flynn have a cold manipulative streak that twists an audience into knots. It’s a terrific whodunit with several booby-trapped surprises that only make you dig in more. It seems like every few minutes we’re learning more about Nick and what he’s been hiding from others. Flynn, who also adapted the screenplay, does a terrific job of playing with our loyalties, getting us to doubt what we see and who these people really are, and she does this even to the final minute, leaving us with no clear-cut answers to wash away our reservations. Flynn’s strengths as a writer are how she reveals her tale over time, how she makes us rethink the past and the characters and their sincerity. It’s a patient film, and just under two and a half hours perhaps too patient, but it’s not the least bit lackadaisical. Flynn’s story is wrapping a web around Nick and watching him get caught, and every perfectly timed reveal only widens that web. Gone Girl is a film bursting with intrigue. It snares you and then fiendishly plays with your expectations.
Affleck (Argo) was an obvious choice for the role of Nick Dunne, the charming man whose self-effacing smile rubs people the wrong way. He’s rarely been better onscreen, giving strong life to all the conflicting parts of Nick, from his calm aloofness at his wife’s disappearance to his cunning way with his own truths. He gets way in over his head, and watching Affleck navigate the tenuous situation is one of the film’s many twisted pleasures. Pike (The World’s End, Pride and Prejudice) is going to be an unfamiliar face to most American audiences but not for much longer. This is the biggest role of Pike’s career and much like Fincher’s other “find” Rooney Mara in Dragon Tattoo, she knocks it out of the park. In just a look she conveys Amy’s upper-class upbringing, her icy demeanor being interpreted as disdain. Through Amy’s journals, the character opens up to us, becoming better defined, making us fear for her, and Pike sells it. Hers is a performance of layers; it’s like she gets to play several Amy’s in this movie. Her demeanor is always so composed, so modulated and controlled, so the big moments that draw out her anger and horror register even more. It’s too early to determine what kind of awards buzz Gone Girl will have through the season, but if anyone has a chance, it’s her.
From top to bottom, the supporting cast adds great value to the film. Most surprising is Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) as Nick’s high profile, slick, morally flexible defense attorney. It is no stretch to say this is Perry’s finest acting ever put to film, in or outside a dress. I wanted more of him, and that’s not something I’ve ever said before. Dickens (TV’s Treme, Footloose) would ordinarily be the best performance in most movies; smart, empathetic but no-nonsense, and wryly funny. In an ordinary crime thriller, she’d be our lead character. Coon (the breakout actress from HBO’s The Leftovers) is the audience’s voice of sanity, providing necessary gallows humor to punctuate all the discomforting dread. Casey Wilson (TV’s Marry Me) is a suburban housewife send-up and provides some laughs too. Even Emily Ratajkowski, otherwise known as one of the topless models in the “Blurred Lines” video, is pretty good as a naive coed. Thus is the power Fincher wields as a director of actors, a quality often overlooked by his technical prowess. The one casting question is Neill Patrick Harris (TV’s How I Met Your Mother) as Desi, Amy’s creepy ex-boyfriend who still very much clings to the notion they should be together. Harris tries too hard to be creepy, concentrating too much that his style becomes mannered and halting.
With Fincher’s name attached it’s almost redundant to talk about the technical superlatives of the movie; it goes without saying. One of the finest visual stylists of his generation, Fincher impeccably composes his shots. The man finds a kindred spirit with Amy and her color-coded meticulous organization. The cinematography is crisp and suitably eerie and dreamlike (or nightmarish), the mood always pulsating with a beautiful dread to tap into the unsettling unease of Nick’s dire situation. The editing is rock-solid, keeping the audience guessing with the balance of Amy and Nick perspectives. There is a chilling sequence late that involves a mass amount of blood, but it’s made even more unnerving thanks to the judicious edits and fade outs, heightening the horror. The only technical aspect I found wanting is the same with Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, namely the score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. Twice now I’ve labored through musical scores of theirs that could best be described as ominous ambient noise. You keep expecting it to build but it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s just the change of material, as it’s also been two films in a row based upon dark and grisly crime paperbacks, but consider me disappointed yet again. There’s nothing memorable here and that’s a shame considering how buoyant their Oscar-winning score was for the still amazing Social Network.
But even with that Fincher polish and the sinister snap of Flynn’s plot, I can’t say that Gone Girl the movie rises to the level of its lofty ambitions. Much like Dragon Tattoo, this is a skillfully made crime thriller, but is it anything beyond that description? That’s not to say there’s anything particularly wrong with being a skillfully made thriller; Fincher’s Seven is one of my favorite films of all time, and yet despite its end-of-times philosophy about the dark hearts of man, it’s really nothing more than a exceptionally made thriller, and that’s fine because that movie is near perfect. With Gone Girl, the stabs at deeper analysis and social commentary feel just out of grasp. The tabloid news fixation, a landscape littered with missing wives and presumably guilty husbands, is ripe for satire, but it feels always on the peripheral, like Fincher is checking in to take the temperature and then going back to the muck. There’s much more that could have been done, but that’s fine. The larger missed commentary is with marital relationships. This is not, as some critics have labeled, a How We Live Now kind of film, a jarring wake-up call that human beings more or less suck. Nick and Amy are far from being relatable analogues for the masses, and that’s fine. They are allowed to just be interesting characters, which they are, rather than stand-ins for searing social commentary. The fact that five years into their marriage they’re both still strangers says something about them, but does it say something novel about marriage itself or human relationships in the twenty-first century? The idea of people wearing false masks isn’t exactly new. The average couple is not probably going to go to bed thinking, “Who is the real person I’m with?” The average couple is just going to go along for the ride and think, “Wow, these are some messed up characters.”
And now some spoilers as I delve into Gone Girl’s ending, so if you choose to remain clean please skip to the next paragraph. The ending is unsettling and disappointing for people because the only person who gets what she wants is our main antagonist, Amy. The final shot, a replay of the opening image but with clarifying context, is her triumph, staring coldly, head atop her husband, as if she were a cat purring. She has won. And this ending pisses people off. For my money, this is the absolute perfect ending for a story about toxic relationships and a morass of a marriage. Nick is rescued by Amy’s reappearance, engineered through some canny media manipulation by Nick, but now he’s stuck, and stuck with his lovely psychopathic wife. The police know she’s guilty but won’t proceed further thanks to looking inept on a national stage. Nick can’t leave because then his child will be raised by Amy, twisting him or her into mommy’s little psychopath. The only way he saves that child is by staying, by sacrificing his own freedom, to become prisoner to his wife, to play the part she has wanted him to play, and he does it. He is condemned. I find that to be poetic and darkly satisfying, and it’s very true tonally for this sort of sordid tale, but I understand why people hate it. I just think a happy ending or one where the villain is vanquished would feel trite.
Gone Girl is a toxic relationship movie, an involving and pulpy suspense thriller, a rewarding character study that plumbs some pretty dark depths, and most of all a sickly entertaining movie with excellent craftsmanship. It is everything fans of the novel could have hoped for with Fincher attached. As our tormented husband and wife, Affleck and Pike deliver career-best and career-making, in her case, performances. The ending will divide audiences sharply just as it did readers but I consider it the correct denouement. The movie doesn’t provide much in the way of stinging, applicable social commentary or media satire that hasn’t already been covered by the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But does it have to be anything more than a terrific thriller? An exceptional thriller can be entertainment enough, and Gone Girl is definitely that.
Nate’s Grade: A-
What a smurfin’ terrible movie. This big screen debut for the little blue commune dwellers is a painful experience, magically transporting the little creatures to New York City. They find themselves in the care of Patrick (Neill Patrick Harris), an ad man who’s pretty much a jerk, especially to his doting, pregnant wife. At one point, in his ad man frenzy, he yells, “ I never wanted any little people running around here!” Oh no, what a bizarre outburst that somehow cuts directly to his fears of being a father. The movie spends so much time with the human characters, who are shrill, exasperating, and dull form the get-go. The comedy is a mixture of slapstick and insufferable kiddie wordplay, replacing “Smurf” for just about any word in a sentence for a miserable attempt at humor. It’s like the screenplay was a Mad Libs page (Am I being too generous crediting a whole page to the script?). The Smurfs is clearly designed for a 3D audience, hence there is crap flying at the screen at every turn. Yeah, another stupid thing thrown at the screen. Hank Azaria plays the thankless role of Gargemel, the man who created Smurfette (voiced, not too badly actually, by pop singer Katy Perry) but schemes to capture Smurfs for their… smurfness. I don’t know. If this guy could create his own Smurf, why doesn’t he just keep doing this? Instead, Azaria runs around New York speaking in an arch manner, falling down a lot. I suppose the real question is whether this piece of blue excrement could entertain children, its target audience. Perhaps the youngest of tykes will be tickled by the Smurf adventures, but I think most kids will be puzzled and bored and weirded out by the movie, wondering what they had done wrong to deserve watching this dreck.
Nate’s Grade: D
Obviously this movie is bad. A sequel to a lukewarm family film from nine years ago, the chances were slim that Cats and Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore would have ever worked. They don’t even have the temerity to have the subtitle read “Pussy Galore” for fear that repeating the most famous Bond girl name might cause parents discomfort. It’s a live-action talking-animal movie that posits that cats and dogs have been fighting an ages-old feud and they all have secret lairs and technology at their service despite lacking opposable thumbs. Really, premise alone you’re already lowering the standards, and with standards firmly and securely lowered, you may even laugh once or twice (that’s probably about it). It depends on how susceptible to puns you are because that is the primary joke vehicle. The film makes an attempt to throw animals into a Bond-styled action thriller with, pardon me, shaggy results. The character animation is poor, the dialogue feels like it was stitched from one groan-worthy pun after another, and yet Cats and Dogs 2 doesn’t offend with its sheer badness. Premise alone, you sort of watch the thing in a vegetative state.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Thanks to a rambunctious comedic spirit and some delightfully colorful visuals, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is absurdly amusing from start to finish. I was relieved when this animated family film stuck by its own manic comic sensibilities instead of pandering with scatological humor and bizarre and instantly dated pop culture references. The story has the familiar “believe in yourself” elements but it takes it another tasty level. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (MTV’s vastly underrated Clone High) pack the story with jokes of all levels, running gags with surprising payoffs, puns that manage to be funny, satirical one-liners, imaginative visual gags, and inventive action sequences when the film becomes an all-you-can-eat buffet of disaster movies. The pacing is frenetic and the eclectic vocal cast (Bruce Campbell as the villainous mayor! Mr. T as sheriff! Neil Patrick Harris as a talking monkey!) really, as the film says, “carpe some diem.” This isn’t an emotionally engaging movie whatsoever but it’s one of the best comedies of 2009 and certainly one of the most jam-packed, fun 90 minutes you could ask to sit through. Just prepare to be extremely hungry afterward.
Nate’s Grade: A-
I was a big fan of the first outing to White Castle, a crude stoner comedy that also happened to be clever in its outrageousness. The Harold and Kumar sequel returns the same writers but what the hell happened? The first film separated itself from its class of juvenile jokesters because it had charm and wit, but this mediocre movie just stumbles from one uninspired comedic setup to another. The boys get mistaken for terrorists and then the movie becomes a ramshackle road trip through America. The gags are lame and easily telegraphed. Regrettably, many jokes are reheated from the first film, like Kumar’s fantasies involving an anthropomorphic living bag of weed. The presence of the hysterically gifted Neil Patrick Harris gives the film a boost but even NPH cannot save these less-than-stellar shenanigans. The comic set pieces don’t add up together into something greater, and the only scene worth remembering is when the boys smoke weed with President Bush. You know you’re in bad shape when even the gratuitous nudity feels tacky and boring.
Nate’s Grade: C
In 2004, there was a gold mine of smart but crude comedies. I cannot fathom why people have ignored both Euro Trip and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Not only are both movies extremely funny, they serve as perfect examples of a great teen comedy. And both had characters that weren’t idiots or stoners. A trio of former Seinfeld writers penned Euro Trip and the fast-paced wit and love of the absurd is evident. The leads of Harold and Kumar are Asian-American and Indian-American, which gave and smart intriguing ethnic point of view to teen comedies. Harold and Kumar were studying to respectively become a doctor and an accountant. These characters aren’t dumb, just in over their heads as they hunt all night for those tiny White Castle burgers. Harold and Kumar has many laugh-out-loud moments that won’t make you ashamed for doing do. Neil Patrick Harris’ lurid cameo is a highpoint. Euro Trip and Harold and Kumar are intelligent, crude, and blisteringly funny. Rent them if you can.
Both Grades: B
Madonna and Rupert are the best of buds, but he’s gay. So of course it’s only nature and a matter of time before they sleep together and get pregnant. They decide to disclose the identity of the daddy and raise the child together. Why they never went with the virgin birth angle is beyond me. So they raise it. And they do. Then the Material Girl wants said child for herself and it pretty much veers further into absurd soap opera from there on out.
The premise is a rip-off of the earlier The Object of My Affection, which in turn was a rip-off of Chasing Amy. Get prepared for countless scenes of Madonna and Rupert gallivanting about like they’re in a perpetual slumber party. Rarely has a more awkward film been so preachy. It’s a never-ending soapbox of sermons about family values and gay rights. Wonderful but if I’m not mistaken wasn’t there supposed to be a story somewhere?
The movie resides as one half comedy (?) then one half drama, neither of which is consistent let alone entertaining. Somewhere there’s a violent jolt into an out-of-place Kramer vs. Kramer courtroom battle royale. If the audience is supposed to feel for Madonna’s character then nothing like a selfish child custody battle to win the hearts of everyone. Who’s the victim in this? Not the child. It’s the audience.
Rupert Everett may be the only redeeming part of this uneven and mushy dramedy of lapsed judgement. His charm is evident and his leading-man ability carries the film as long as he can until it implodes on itself. I could clearly hear sighs around me of “If only he weren’t gay.” in the theater.
Madonna is clearly the biggest hindrance in The Next Best Thing. Whenever she speaks it’s like she’s reciting lines into a mirror. Madonna has some mysterious British accent she seems to have picked up and is as wooden as a board. If you call what she does in this movie “acting” then you’ll have to register some national parks with the Screen Actors Guild.
If The Next Best Thing really is the next best thing for Madonna’s struggling film career, I’d suggest reconsider her options. And pray to the other Madonna while doing it. At least she would have enough sense not to do a silly remake of “American Pie.”
Nate’s Grade: C-