Downsizing

Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier

Director: Alexander Payne

Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor


This is an ambitious film for Alexander Payne. In the past his films, including Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska, have tended to focus on average people in common, familiar situations with a slight satirical edge. He is a writer and director who thrives on the ordinariness of suburban America and its discontented individuals. Downsizing isn’t much of a departure for him; it retains his realist style, sense of humour, and focus on story and character over plot. Still, never before has Payne told a story where the themes have reached so far beyond the individual. As well as a film about one man’s search for belonging, happiness, and meaning, Downsizing is about environmentalism, the American culture of wealth and leisure, and white privilege. It’s a movie that starts off with a simple premise in Payne’s typically quirky manner but then gets more serious towards the end until it’s completely overwhelmed by the larger, apocalyptic implications of its story. The first half works well. The second half doesn’t.

Our everyman is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He lives a pretty aimless life with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) in Omaha where he works as an occupational therapist (not a doctor). He’s in that state where he’s realising that this isn’t the life he hoped he would have, that things just got away from him and now he’s stuck in a rut looking for some kind of change. At a high school reunion he and Audrey come face to face with Paul’s old buddy Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) and his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe), who both got downsized (shrunken to a minuscule fraction of their original size) and seem happier for it. Downsizing is a recent phenomenon that was devised as a solution to the environmental crisis being caused by humankind, but for Dave and Carol it was a chance at a second life where they get to live in luxury with their inflated wealth. Paul discusses the matter with Audrey and together they decide to just go for it and get downsized.

The scenes where we see the downsizing process in action make up the best part of the film. Payne’s imagination and attention to detail help to sell the idea to the audience and make for an amusing sequence as we see everything that is involved with taking the plunge in stature. The process only works on living tissue, therefore participants must have every inch of body hair shaved, every filling in their teeth removed, and must be completely nude. The facility has a team of normal-sized dentists on hand to work on everybody’s teeth before the process and a team of downsized dentists to work on them after. Once the process is done and the humans have been shrunk down to five or so inches, we also get to see the nurses carefully lift their sedated and now fragile bodies from their beds into boxes using spatulas. One can only wonder how the trial and error phase of the programme’s development went and what would happen if something went wrong (although we do learn later in the film why exactly the tooth fillings need to be removed). Paul wakes up at the end of it all to learn that Audrey backed out at the last second, leaving him little and alone.

Thus we follow Paul to Leisureland where he’s just as miserable as he was before getting downsized. His divorce from Audrey has sapped him of his expected wealth meaning that, far from living in luxurious paradise without a care or worry in the world, he must work a similarly menial job as he did in his old life to make ends meet. His social life in mostly non-existent, save his interactions with his noisy upstairs neighbour Dušan Mirković (Christoph Waltz), an Eastern-European party animal who feels it is his duty to teach Paul that life can still be fun. Paul however is more drawn to Dušan’s Vietnamese cleaning lady Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), an activist who caused an international incident, barely survived fleeing her country, and was downsized against her will. Seeing her limp around on her ill-fitting prosthetic leg, Paul tried to help her and gets drawn into the plights of the downtrodden and overlooked residents of Leisureland.

This is where the film ventures beyond Paul’s story as an individual and starts exploring the bigger picture themes. On the one hand this should be a welcome change of course given what a dull character Paul has been. As the everyman Paul is a nonentity; he’s our way in to the surreal world of Leisureland but there is nothing compelling about his character or his arc to make him worth getting invested in. It certainly doesn’t help that the movie surrounds Paul with other characters who turn out to be much more interesting and entertaining than him, from the smarmy Dušan to the high-strung Ngoc Lan to the absent Audrey. On the other hand, the bigger picture never quite comes into fruition because Payne cannot really decide which way he wants to go. It’s never clear just how seriously the film takes the questions being raised and yet the film gets so caught up in those questions that it loses sight of what the original premise was supposed to be, leading to a conclusion feels largely unsatisfying.

The premise was an interesting one to start with; it fell right under Payne’s usual shtick of everymen looking for changes in their lives with an interesting sci-fi twist. Somewhere along the line however the film just lost me. The nondescript protagonist ends up in quite a generic story about learning to care for the less fortunate and along the way the movie diverges towards themes of ecological preservation, racial segregation, and materialism and gets so mixed up in them all that I couldn’t remember what the original point was supposed to be. I was enjoying this film quite a bit until I wasn’t and in the end I found myself feeling more disappointed than I was outraged, irritated, or uninterested. There’s a very good film in here somewhere but Payne lost sight of it. It’s still an interesting film and there is some good humour along the way, but ultimately Downsizing is an unsatisfying watch.

★★

Despicable Me 3

Cast: (voiced by) Steve Carell, Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Steve Coogan, Jenny Slate, Dana Gaier, Julie Andrews

Directors: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda

Writers: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio


Although I was never a big fan of Despicable Me, I could understand the appeal. It had a fun idea that allowed room for both humour and sentiment, it was well animated and had some good performances, and the Minions in particular were enjoyable in their scene-stealing moments. Despicable Me 2 was serviceable as a sequel but otherwise forgettable. It lacked the novelty of the original, its humour got more childish and unimaginative, and the popularity of the Minions led to the expansion of their roles, at which point they started to feel a little much. When Minions came along I ended up not seeing it because I was about as interested in watching the Minions in their own movie as I would if they were the Oompa Loompas or the aliens in Toy Story. They’re fine in brief segments, but not as protagonists in a feature-length narrative. Now, with Despicable Me 3, it feels to me like this franchise has seriously run out of steam.

Gru, having left his villainous ways behind him, is now a member of the Anti-Villain League with his wife Lucy and is tasked with stopping Balthazar Bratt, a former child TV star turned supervillain. Gru is able to foil Bratt’s plan to steal the world’s largest diamond but fails to catch him, leading to Gru and Lucy being dismissed from their jobs. Shortly after informing his daughters Margo, Edith, and Agnes of their termination, Gru receives an invitation to fly to Freedonia (Land of the Brave and Free!) to meet Dru, his long-lost twin brother. The family meets Dru at his estate and learn that he is charming, handsome and fabulously wealthy. Later Dru reveals to Gru that the source of his wealth is their father, who was in fact a legendary supervillain. Dru enlists Gru to return to his old ways and to teach him how to follow their father in his footsteps. Gru however, desperate to get him and Lucy their old jobs back, decides to take advantage of Dru’s resources to catch Bratt before he can proceed with his villainous plot.

With a story about three adoptive daughters in the first film and one that ended with Gru falling in love and getting married in the second, it’s very clear that Despicable Me is a series very much about family and that continues in this film. Here Gru is reunited with a brother he never knew he had and gets to learn more about himself and where he came from while bonding with this person who is so different from him in so many ways and yet in many other ways so identical. Lucy meanwhile is realising that by marrying Gru she also married his three daughters and is struggling to step into the role of their mother. Either or both of these stories could have been interesting and touching enough to make for an enjoyable family movie. The trouble is that Despicable Me targets itself towards a very young demographic and is ill-equipped to tackle these stories with the maturity they warrant. This isn’t to say that the stories cannot be made accessible to young children, but when a movie elects to open up with a fart joke during the production company’s logo, I think that sends a clear message about the kind of tone the movie is going for.

Now, if a movie doesn’t care about nuance and just wants to keep an audience of six-year-olds entertained for a couple of hours, that’s fine. But I don’t think that Despicable Me 3 does that particularly well. The story they’ve put together with its points about Gru and Lucy’s concerns for the future with the loss of their jobs and the family dynamics is just not engaging for young viewers. The characters are not rich enough and their problems are not relatable enough. There are a couple of sub-plots that might catch children’s interest like Agnes’ search for her very own unicorn and the Minions’ misadventures in prison and a TV talent show, but they’re so disconnected from the main story that if either or both plots were removed entirely barely a single thing would change. The movie would be less fun, considering that those two subplots contain the film’s best moments (as annoying as the Minions can be, even I had to chuckle during their rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan), but otherwise the same beats of the main stories would still play out in the same way. It also doesn’t help that the main villain is one big joke about a the 80’s, decade about which little kids are pretty much clueless.

More than anything Despicable Me 3 is a guaranteed paycheck for the studio. Even the cast seemed largely disinterested, especially Trey Parker who turned in his most generic South Park voice for a movie that’s about two MPAA ratings below what he needs to excel. Carell does well enough for Gru to remain an entertaining character but he doesn’t bring anything new or surprising to his performance despite having an entire second character to play. The movie is bright, noisy, and recognisable enough that kids will flock to the theatre to see it and will probably even enjoy it. What the studio either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care about though is that, in the long run, those kids are not going to embrace this film because it doesn’t offer them anything worth returning to. There are no valuable lessons to take away, no unforgettable moments that demand to be relived and no qualities that make this movie rewarding to an older audience. Any attempt this movie makes to be more grown-up backfires because it simply isn’t smart, competent or mature enough to handle that kind of material.

★★

Sausage Party

Cast: (voiced by) Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, Nick Kroll, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek

Directors: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan

Writers: Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg


In the spirit of Pixar, which has provided emotional portrayals of toys, fish, robots and even emotions, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg posed what seemed to them an innocent question: what if our food had feelings? It did not take them long to realise how messed up that would be, leading to Sausage Party. By venturing into animation, Rogen and Goldberg have found a format that perfectly complements their juvenile and crass sense of humour. The film is able to be coarse and explicit while also being childish. Sausage Party is a movie that appeals to the immature thirteen-year-old in all of us. In a way, it’s a little like South Park if they took out the sharp social commentary and masterfully crafted humour. Sausage Party is vulgar, infantile and dumb and had me laughing in spite of my better judgement many times.

The movie is set in a supermarket called Shopwell’s where every food product dreams of being chosen by one of the gods who will take them to the Great Beyond. Among them is a sausage called Frank and a hot dog bun named Brenda who cannot wait to be chosen together so that they may finally consummate their relationship. However a jar of Honey Mustard who was chosen but then returned by one the gods hysterically declares that everything they’ve been led to believe about the Great Beyond is a lie. After telling Frank to seek out the Firewater, the Honey Mustard commits suicide. His death causes Frank, Brenda, Kareem the lavash, Sammy the bagel and the antagonistic Douche to fall out of their shopping cart and get left behind in the store. Douche is discarded and vows revenge against Frank. Barry, a sausage who had inhabited the same packet as Frank, is taken into the Great Beyond where he learns the secret that drove Honey Mustard to his death. Frank meanwhile leads the others on a quest through the supermarket to discover this terrible truth.

I’ve been dismissive of Rogen’s brand of humour before in such films as Bad Neighbours 2. Personally I’ve found that while these types of films often hold much potential for comedy, a lot of that potential does not get realised because not enough thought or craft goes into their development. The result of this lack of discipline is a bunch of semi-improvised bits and jokes that don’t really go anywhere. This is perhaps why I found Sausage Party to be a more humorously fulfilling experience, because animation is not a format that really lends itself to ad-libbed gags and spontaneous riffing (at least not to the extent that Rogan tends to favour). This was a film that demanded tighter scripting and the comedy is more consistent because of it. The animation also enabled the film to play around with some of the possibilities of visual comedy, as in one sequence that pays homage to Saving Private Ryan.

The humour is typically Rogen/Goldberg-esque and has plenty of stoner jokes, sex jokes, and just plain fucked up jokes with a plethora of food puns for good measure. There are countless ideas in this film from the lesbian taco played by Salma Hayek to the intoxicating effects of bath salts to the explosive finale that made me think “only the imagination of Seth Rogen could’ve come up with this”. I did think that the larger story the film was trying to tell about diversity, tolerance and faith was a little too hammered in and felt kind of unwarranted. It tries to do this in a number of ways such as the inclusion of a Jewish bagel and a Muslim lavash who clash over the differing ideologies until they come together in the weirdest, most shocking way imaginable. There are enough laughs to be had in their depiction of this theme (I had a good chuckle at the German beer declaring his intention to kill all the juice), but overall it felt to me like the film was trying to be smarter than it was or needed to be.

Sausage Party is an outrageous, crude, stupid film and is absolutely hilarious. It is a shameless movie that revels in its debauchery, obscenity and immaturity. Those who enjoy bad taste comedy will find much to enjoy in the film’s utterly disturbing concept, its explicitly graphic imagery that cannot be unseen, and its unrelenting, unabashed perversity and depravity. People will be offended by this film, of that I have no doubt. There are some who won’t appreciate the topical references and others who just won’t be able to handle the film’s more decadent aspects. However, as opposed to something like South Park, Sausage Party is by no means a mean-spirited film. It takes its shots but in truth this film is laughing at itself more than it is at anything else. Getting offended by this movie is a bit like being offended by a loudmouth child with a crude imagination; it’s futile. Sausage Party is a silly, childish film for grown-ups and is a lot of fun to watch.

★★★★

Ghostbusters

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia, Charles Dance, Michael K. Williams, Matt Walsh, Chris Hemsworth

Director: Paul Feig

Writers: Katie Dippold, Paul Feig


Before delving into this film I suppose I ought to address the absurd controversy it has provoked. There seem to be two separate camps of thought on the Internet that have made the most noise on this issue. One regards the original Ghostbusters movie as some kind of sacred holy text that must never ever ever be violated by any kind of a remake or revival. The other is a fanatically extreme form of feminism that believes anyone who could possibly dislike a movie starring four women for any reason must be a misogynist. Both sides are as ridiculous as they are irrational and the uproar they created is one worthy of a South Park episode. Anyway, my basic attitude leading up to the movie was this: I love the original Ghostbusters movie but was open to the prospect of a female-led reboot. I like the director and the actresses they chose but didn’t like the trailer they released. However good movies get bad trailers all the time (and vice-versa) so I went in hopeful that the movie might still end up being good. In the end I thought it was okay.

Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), a physics professor at Columbia University, is being considered for tenure when she discovers that a book she co-authored about the paranormal has been republished. Fearing for her reputation she contacts her collaborator Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) with whom she hasn’t spoken in years. Abby agrees to take the book out of circulation if Erin agrees to help her and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), an eccentric engineer, investigate a claim of paranormal activity. They head over to a museum where they discover an actual ghost, confirming everything they had theorised years ago. They decide to follow through with this discovery and open a business on the upper-floor of a Chinese restaurant for the study and capture of ghosts. Joining them is Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), the subway worker who gives the team their first lead, and Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), their attractive but dim-witted receptionist. Together they face a great, otherworldly threat that only the Ghostbusters can stop.

As ludicrous as the controversy is, it unfortunately left an impact on this film. There was so much pressure for this movie to match up to the first Ghostbusters that it ended up trying to appease the fans with awkward call-backs and forced cameos. It’s a shame because whenever the movie actually did its own thing, it worked pretty well. The dynamic between the four leading ladies worked for the most part and could have been taken even further. The action is a lot more creative and inventive than in the original and is often fun to watch. The visuals, while hardly groundbreaking, are decent and match the style of the original while still looking different enough to give the movie its own tone. Not everything new works well (the villain is bland and forgettable) nor is everything old stale (Slimer’s cameo rocks) but ultimately the movie’s biggest weakness is that it is too afraid to be its own movie.

The movie’s second biggest weakness is the inconsistency in its humour. For every joke in this movie that works, there is one that does not. I hope that whoever was in charge of the trailer got sacked because, in a movie that has some very funny jokes and moments, they were somehow able to cherry pick the absolute worst and most cringeworthy of the bunch. The inconsistency is present throughout the film and is often frustrating. Having Holtzmann snack on a can of pringles during their first ghost sighting is quite funny. Having that ghost puke on Erin is not. The movie is full of these moments where it temporarily wins you over with something smart or humourous only to lose you straight away with something stupid or banal. Near the end when the Ghostbusters were battling possessed parade balloons I found myself going along with it alright until the entry of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man brought me out all over again. It is this mismatch that made it difficult for me to really get drawn into the movie.

The movie’s best resource is its main cast, which played a vital role in saving this movie from its lesser qualities. Wiig and McCarthy’s characters are the straight players of the ensemble so they don’t get many opportunities to be funny. When the chances do present themselves though, they make it work (Wiig’s delivery of “Burn in hell” is comedic gold). McKinnon, with her crazed expressions and deadpan deliveries, is splendid as Holtzmann, the film’s strongest character. Jones also does well with what she has, although what the movie gives her is quite limiting. I liked the idea of turning the practice of having a stupid but attractive woman in every comedy on its head by casting Hemsworth as the male equivalent but found the execution uneven. Sometimes it works but other times they make him too stupid. Between them they cannot make every joke work because the material is often just too weak but, when the movie does give them something good, they knock it out of the park.

All in all, I neither love nor hate this movie. I don’t think it’s a betrayal of the original Ghostbusters but it certainly isn’t its equal. The Ghostbusters of 1984 was its own weird and wonderful thing that can never be recaptured (we know because they tried in 1989), so I’m glad that they at least tried to do something different with the property. I just think that the result is a mixed bag. The movie is funny and creative enough that I can understand why someone would like it but it is also tedious and awkward enough that I can understand someone disliking it. In either case it most certainly isn’t worth all of the abhorrence and antagonism that has been generated around it. Anyone who claims that this movie has ruined their childhood needs to get a life. Anyone opposed to the idea of a major franchise making a movie with a female ensemble needs to grow up. At the end of the day Ghostbusters is a clumsy but sometimes enjoyable mess and you can either take it or leave it.

★★★