Alexander Payne lets male self-pity get the better of his sci-fi parable Downsizing, while the jokes in Early Man’s stop-motion celebration of British daftness seem prehistoric
Downsizing (15) ***
Last Flag Flying (15) **
Early Man (PG) **
As a filmmaker Alexander Payne tends to focus on the catastrophes that disrupt ordinary people living small lives on a fault line of personal discontent. Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska are all, in some respects, about mediocre men reaching an impasse that either sends them scuttling back to their previously dejected states, albeit pacified by some minor act of rebellion, or forces them to take tiny steps towards a less certain, but possibly more positive, future. Zoom out from the characters and their stories hardly seem earth-shattering, but on a micro level they’re full of bitter, barbed truths about the potentially destructive impact of accumulative disappointment. Payne takes this idea to its literal extreme in Downsizing, a sci-fi parable in which those unhappy with their piddling little lives can improve their prospects by being shrunk to a fraction of their size.
The film kicks off by elegantly setting up the world. To lessen humanity’s impact on the planet, Norwegian scientists have invented a miniaturisation process that allows people to exist in specially designed communities more or less the way they have done in the regular world, just on a smaller scale. Cut to ten years later and the technology’s possibilities have been repackaged for ordinary Americans as a kind of guilt-free, get-rich-quick scheme. With real-world assets stretching further in a downsized community, people can live like kings in a way the could never afford to do as regular people.
This being an Alexander Payne film, though, paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, something the film’s affable, unremarkable protagonist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) soon discovers when he elects to escape his humdrum life in Nebraska by undergoing the irreversible process. Moving to Leisureland, a tiny community where conspicuous consumption is only invisible to the outside world and any ethical motivations for counteracting over-population are far down the list of its residents’ concerns, he soon finds himself unexpectedly alone and with far less money than he’d imagined. In short, Paul’s grand dreams are gradually replaced with a new reality not all that different from his old one. But salvation awaits in the form of his friendship with his man-of-mystery neighbour, played by Christoph Waltz, and his relationship with a Vietnamese dissident called Ngoc Lan Tran (the wonderful Hong Chau), whose involuntary downsizing – she lives in a shanty town on the fringes of Leisureland – is a reminder that social problems aren’t eliminated just because the world at large can’t see them.
It’s Chau who really brings the film alive and in the second half, Payne shifts perspective to explore more of her story. Here, the narrative possibilities seem so limitless, the film almost can’t help but disappoint as it starts to become apparent that all narrative roads will lead us back to the dilemmas facing the likeable Paul. For all the high concept wonders at work, Payne can’t seem to break out of his own rut. Male self-pity is indulged once again.
No stranger to making extraordinary films out of ordinary situations, Boyhood director Richard Linklater turns his gaze on the after-effects of war with Last Flag Flying, a road movie about a trio of ageing Vietnam veterans – played by Steve Carell, Laurence Fishburne and Bryan Cranston – who reunite to help Carell’s character, Doc, transport the body of his son home after he’s killed in Iraq in 2003. As Doc gradually uncovers the truth about his son’s death, the film has a few interesting things to say about the cost of telling lies off the battlefield to justify actions on it. But any dramatic impetus is diminished by the film’s sheer conventionality. Though the source novel by Darryl Ponicsan
(who co-wrote the script with Linklater) is a belated sequel to his earlier novel The Last Detail, Linklater downplays any connection to the classic 1973 Hal Ashby film version that made it famous. That’s understandable for many reasons, but reckoning with a classic in a meaningful way is the sort of thing Linklater is better equipped to pull off than almost anyone currently working and yet he’s chosen to turn this instead into a sort of grumpy-old-man comedy that looks as if it could have been directed by anyone. Carell does do some nice, understated work as Doc, but Fishburne’s own Apocalypse Now connection remains unexploited and Cranston doesn’t so much chew the scenery as trough it like a starving man at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Revolving around a primitive Stone Age tribe facing its own obsolescence in the dawning Bronze Age, the best joke in Aardman Animation’s Early Man is the meta one regarding its own existence. In the digital era, plasticine may as well be a pun on Pleistocene, so far apart are the technologies that give us Nick Park’s thumb-print-heavy stop-motion animation and the slick CG visuals of Pixar. Sadly, while the primitive, painstaking, labour-intensive work that goes gives every Aardman film gives it an anomalous visual identity that’s worth preserving, Early Man’s reliance on groaning dad-humour and stereotypical celebrations of British daftness feels prehistoric in all the worst ways, especially as the film rolls out a rubbish football plot about being rubbish at football. Eddie Redmayne is fairly nondescript as the film’s caveman hero, Tom Hiddleston goes full ‘Allo ‘Allo as its preening French-accented villain and Maisie Williams fights a losing battle as the film’s token rebel girl who must teach the hero the value of team work and being true to himself. ■