Movie reviews: Despite ingenuity, 'Downsizing' becomes muddled halfway through
In this image released by Paramount Pictures, Kristen Wiig, center left, and Matt Damon, center right, appear in a scene from "Downsizing." (Paramount Pictures via AP)
Published Friday, December 22, 2017 6:00AM EST
Last Updated Thursday, January 11, 2018 12:48PM EST
DOWNSIZING: 3 STARS
“Downsizing,” the new satire from “Sideways” director Alexander Payne, offers up a proposition that is almost too good to be true. His movie asks, “what would you do if you could simultaneously help save the environment and improve your personal finances?”
Set in the near future, overpopulation is the biggest issue facing the world. In Norway, a team of scientists come up with an inventive, and just a little wacky, way to solve the problem: cellular reduction a.k.a. shrinking. It is, they say, the only safe and humane way to resolve the curse of overpopulation. “Life is unsustainable at this current mass and volume,” says Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård).
It’s a medical procedure known as downsizing whereby a person’s current mass and volume are shrunk by .0634 per cent. They take up less space, produce less waste (four months of bathroom waste for a family of four takes up less than half of one garbage bag), eat less and generally are less a drain on the planet’s resources. The kicker? It’s cheaper to live. $83 is an average food budget for two months or could buy a matching conflict-free diamond bracelet, earring and necklace set.
When we meet Omaha couple Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) they are at a financial crossroads. He wanted to be a surgeon but when his mom got sick he dropped out of pre-med to take care of her. Now he works "in-house at Omaha steaks, treating repetitive stress injuries.” She wants to buy a new house but they can’t afford it.
To realize Audrey’s dream of a new house and life, they decide to get small. The capper on the deal? Their equity of $150,000 translates into $12.5 million at the dollhouse-sized city called Leisureland Estates.
But what happens when one chickens out? “You're upset!” says Paul. “You're upset! I'm the one who is 5 inches tall!”
As Paul begins his new miniature solo life, he meets his neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz), a Siberian wheeler-dealer who brings luxury items to the new small communities and Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a shrunken dissident from Vietnam, jailed for political and environmental activity, who smuggled herself into the United States in a television box.
Paul’s journey into smallville changes his life in more ways than he ever could have imagined. Damon plays Paul as an everyman, a good guy who massages his wife's neck and gave up his dream to look after his mother. The enlightenment he (eventually) finds comes with the realization that Leisureland Estates isn’t a brave new world but a continuation of the world he left, complete with class struggles, race issues and poverty. “That's the thing about becoming small,” says Dusan’s friend Konrad (a wonderful Udo Kier), “you become rich. Unless you were poor. Then you're just a small.”
Downsizing, the procedure, not the movie, it turns out, isn’t the answer to the world’s problems. Healing the world is simpler, more primal. It’s about building communities, looking after one another and learning to appreciate what we have.
At least that’s what I think it’s about. “Downsizing,” for all its ingenuity gets bogged down in its second half. The opening hour is inventive, like a light-hearted “Twilight Zone” episode. There are nice details—following the shrinking procedure the newly small adults are scooped up by nurses with spatulas and deposited on to tiny gurneys—and several belly laughs stemming from the situation.
When the film halfway abandons the less-is-more concept (in a world where everything is miniature), the opportunity for the kind of sight gags that drew laughs in the first half disappear—it becomes slightly muddled. Is it a romance? Sort of. Is it social commentary? Yes, but about what exactly? The environment? (There’s even an allusion to Noah’s Ark.) Racism? Illegal immigration? They are all touched on but the film flits from one issue to another so quickly it’s like channel surfing between CNN and MSNBC every forty seconds or so.
“Downsizing” may bite off more than it can chew but its an indictment of how man has broken the environment isn’t all doom and gloom. With Paul’s new world, friends and outlook also comes a hopeful gaze to the future. You may wonder about the appropriateness of the comic tone of Ngoc Lan’s broken English but one can never speculate on whether the film has its heart in the right place or not.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN: 3 STARS
If Wolverine had been around in the 1840s P.T., Barnum would have made him a star. As “The Greatest Showman” tells us, the inventor of the modern circus sought out “unique persons and curiosities” to build a show that lasted for 143 years. After nine movies as the cigar-smoking X-Man, Hugh Jackman now dons the ringmaster’s trademarked top hat to tell the tale of an American institution.
We first meet the future impresario as the young son of an impoverished tailor. When he makes the daughter of one of his father’s rich patrons laugh, it is love at first sight. Cut to a song or two and many years later, Barnum (now played by Jackman) is grown up with a head full of dreams, a houseful of children and a happy marriage to his childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams). What he doesn’t have is a viable career.
Fired from a job as an accountant, he packs up his desk, taking his ledger, pens and a packet of worthless deeds to sunken ships. Using those certificates he secures a $10,000 loan to start his first business, The Barnum Museum, complete with wax sculptures, stuffed animals and a thief-turned-magician named O’Malley. “People are fascinated by the exotic and the macabre,” he says.
He has trouble selling tickets until his daughters make a suggestion. “You need something sensational,” they say, “like a mermaid or unicorn. Something alive, not stuffed.” He doesn’t round up any mermaids or unicorns but does assemble a bearded lady (Keala Settle), trapeze artists (Zendaya and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), tattooed men, dog-faced boys, Irish giants (Radu Spinghel) and Siamese twins.
Critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) denounces the show as exploitation. “It’s a circus,” he raves. “The word you used to describe my show has a nice ring to it,” says Barnum and the concept of the contemporary circus was born.
Money poured in but respect did not. “My father was treated like dirt,” says the so-called “purveyor of the obscene and indecent.” “I was treated like dirt. My daughters won’t be treated like dirt.” In an attempt to court a more upscale crowd he brings on socialite and actor Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron). Carlyle, when he isn’t pining for acrobat Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), sets up shows for Queen Victoria and introduces Barnum to opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Dubbed the Swedish Nightingale, she is the biggest singing star in Europe, and Barnum almost goes bankrupt trying to make her a sensation in America.
It isn’t until he rediscovers his roots—and the virtues of performing under a tent—that he makes a lasting impression.
“The Greatest Showman” is a period piece but pulsates with the rhythms of contemporary music. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who took home as Oscar last year for their work on “La La Land,” provide a timeless score that rings with the brassiness of present-day Broadway. It feels slightly strange, although no more strange than people suddenly bursting into song while traipsing down the street. The songs are catchy and the loose-limbed contemporary choreography would likely have caused riots in 1845.
As the flamboyant huckster who craves legitimacy, Jackman returns to his musical theatre roots, handing in a performance that wouldn’t be out of place on the Broadway stage. The flimsy-ish story doesn’t give him much opportunity to really dig deep into what made Barnum tick. The genial actor, however, in a bigger-than-life performance, brings the rags to riches tale if not to vivid life, at last to tuneful life.
More interesting is the film’s subtext. It’s an American success story writ large but beyond that are comments on equality and bigorty. Despite advertising his menagerie of performers as a freak show we’re told Barnum saw his circus as a celebration of humanity in all its forms. The movie favours uplift and inspiration over deep insight, but its harmonious pop psychology will make your feet tap.
The message of tolerance is central to the plot, reinforced by the Carlyle, Wheeler romance. The upper crust actor and the African American acrobat are drawn to one another despite societal the norms of the day. When his father scolds him, reminding him to remember his place he snaps back, “If this is my place I don’t want it.” As Barnum reaches for the gold, turning his back on his family and ‘freaks,’ Carlyle walks away from his privilege, following his heart.
With that in mind it’s a shame that the move doesn’t give its marginal characters more of a voice. The Bearded Lady, the Dog Faced Boy and others are more or less treated on film as Barnum treated them in life, as set dressing and not much more.
“The Greatest Showman” seems to have taken its lead from its subject and delivered a movie in which every number is a showstopper. It’s a rollercoaster of story and music that occasionally moves too fast but delivers enough thrills along the way to be worth the price of admission. Maybe that’s enough. As Barnum himself said, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.”
I, TONYA: 4 ½ STARS
“I, Tonya” explores the seedy underbelly of a sport you didn’t think had a seedy underbelly. A darkly humorous look at the defining moment of figure skater Tonya Harding’s career, it’s a tale of death threats, broken blades and attempted hobbling.
Margot Robbie is Harding, an elite athlete who sums up her career with, “I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punch line.” As a young child all she wanted to do was skate. A rink rat from age four, she began winning figure skating awards at a time when her friends were still learning cursive. Her embittered mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), the kind of person who stubs out her cigarette out in her mashed potatoes, is a punishing presence, pushing her relentlessly to be the best. “You’re not here to make friends,” she screeches when young Tonya pauses to say hello to a fellow skater. “That girl is your enemy.”
With the help of trainer Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) Harding rises through the ranks, developing an aggressive and athletic style that sees her out skate most of her competitors to become the first skater to complete a triple axel combination with the double toe loop. Trouble is, her homemade costumes, Trashy Tonya nickname and hair trigger temper are not accepted by the skating establishment. “You’re not the image we want to portray,” she’s told. “You’re representing our country and we want a wholesome American family.”
To even the playing field husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) hatches a plan to unnerve Tonya’s biggest threat on the ice—Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). What starts off as psychological warfare against a competitor snowballs into “The Incident,” a scandalous affair vaults Harding’s name into the headlines.
On January 6, 1994, just six weeks before the Lillehammer Olympics, unbeknownst to Harding, a thug, hired by Gillooly’s friend and co-conspirator Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), broke Kerrigan’s knee as she walked through a corridor at Cobo Arena immediately after a practice session. “The Incident” made front page news and eventually saw Harding ousted from the sport she loved.
Director Craig Gillespie keeps the tone light and lively but presents Harding in a light never before seen. Framing her as an abused woman, first by her mother, then Gillooly and finally, devastatingly, by the press and the public—“You’re all my abusers,” she says directly to camera—creates sympathy for a woman who has been widely vilified and mocked.
Robbie dons blue nail polish, perms her hair, chants her “It wasn’t my fault” mantra and hits a career high as the self-described redneck skater who had a shot at the big time. Bold and brassy, it’s a fourth wall breaking performance that could have slid into caricature but doesn’t. It’s a warts and all portrayal that doesn’t try and pull on your heart-strings or pander to easy theatrics.
In Robbie’s hands Harding is still rough around the edges—“Nancy gets hit one time,” she complains, “and it’s life altering event.”—but “I, Tonya” looks beyond the Trashy Tonya image so often portrayed in the press to transform the punch line into a person.
In a movie full of showy roles, Janney shines brightly. As the chain-smoking LaVona she’s a foulmouthed force of nature that belittles her daughter at every turn. “She skates better when she’s enraged,” she hacks. When its own style occasionally bogs the movie down Janney shows up like a bad penny to keep things interesting.
“I, Tonya” is “based on irony free, often contradictory interviews” with the main players in Harding’s life. As a result it’s messy, but this is a messy story about a woman who paid a heavy price for daring to be herself. Not conforming cost her everything but you get a sense, by the end of the film, it’s a price she was willing to pay.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE: 2 STARS
“Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle” has only the most tangential connection to the critically ravaged but popular Robin Williams movie which had only a fleeting connection to the 1981 story by Chris Van Allsburg. The basic premise of a game that springs to life survives, but that’s about it. The new film trades on the goodwill of the other projects and could just as easily have been called “Java 1.2: Welcome To The Jungle” or any other title that might conjure up nostalgia for the 1990s.
The premise is basic. Nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), mean girl Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), jock Anthony "Fridge" Johnson (Ser'Darius Blain) and Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner) are assigned to detention. Stuck in a storage room, they discover a dusty old Jumanji gaming console. Hooking it up, the game sputters to life. “A game for those who seek to find,” it says, “a way to leave their lives behind.” As each click on an avatar they are suddenly swept away into the world of the game, plopped down in the Jumanji jungle and in the middle of an escapade.
They also look different. Their teenage selves are gone, replaced by heroic videogame characters. Spencer is now Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), a buff hero, fearless with no vulnerabilities. Martha is warrior Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) while Fridge is zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart). The biggest change is reserved for Bethany who is now cryptographer Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black).
Adjusting to their new bodies presents challenges. “I don’t have my Claritin!” Spencer complains. “I look like a garden gnome,” whines Bethany. But soon a bigger problem presents itself. How do they get back? Enter game guide Nigel (Rhys Darby) who gives them the rules—to leave game they must return a jewel, stolen by the evil explorer John Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), to the eye of the giant Jaguar statue located deep in the jungle. To do so they must complete different game levels. As they survive each level the danger increases on the next but each challenge also teaches them something about themselves that will apply to their regular lives if they are successful and make it home.
Robin Williams claimed the word “jumanji” is a Zulu word meaning "many effects." It’s a definition director Jake Kasdan seems to have taken too literally. The family-friendly action is boosted by fake looking CGI effects that are almost entirely without charm.
Luckily the cast has charm to burn. When the CGI isn’t clogging up the screen, the actors do a decent job of selling the story. Much of the movie’s humour comes from the actors playing against type. The muscle-bound Johnson as a scaredy-cat and Hart’s slapstick swing for the fences every time but it is Black, as a coquettish teenage girl, who has the best lines. When Bethany learns about going to the bathroom while standing up he/she squeals, “This is so much easier! You have a handle!” Later as the game intensifies he/she says, “I feel like since I lost my phone my other senses have heightened.”
You don’t have to work too hard to find the laughs here, but they are courtesy of the cast’s delivery and charisma not the flimsy script. When they aren’t cracking wise the script—credited to no less than five writers—has characters spend too much time talking about what they’re going to do just before they do it.
When they aren’t droning on about the game to one another or the audience they are engaged in some light pop psychology. “We’ve always only had one life to live,” Moose opines as Bravestone’s videogame power bars deplete, “it depends on how you live it.” It’s as deep as a lunch tray
There’s also much talk of empowerment. In the land of Jumanji the smart ones are gifted with physical prowess while the dim bulbs are bumped up intellectually. The mean girl learns selflessness while the brainiac, who had no use for Phys Ed class, learns the benefit of dance fighting as exercise. By the time the end credits roll everyone are better off than when the movie started… except maybe the audience who deserve more than a handful of laughs and warmed over 90s nostalgia.