And or "Downsizing" Looks At The Personal & Global Politics Of Getting Small
Earlier this month we reported on writer-director Alexander Payne's recent change in plans. He decided to shelve or postpone his script "Downsizing," that had gotten a few choice names attached to it — Paul Giamatti, Sacha Baron Cohen, Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon — in favor of an adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings novel, "The Decendants." We wondered if "shelved" translated into "studio balked at new kind of script for the award-friendly, dramatic-comedy director" or the rumored budget concerns, so we decided to read the script to find out for ourselves.
Let The Sad Get Small. Alexander Payne's scripts ("Citizen Ruth," "Election," "About Schmidt," "Sideways") often work the plight of the sad bastard and mingle in the mundane details of regular lives being lived by regular, middle-Americans. Payne measures his character's sense of self by showing how well they deal with life's throwaway moments, times spent watching TV or picking up take-out. In "Election," Matthew Broderick was the sad history teacher who uncomfortably broke free from his life. In "Sideways," Paul Giamatti was the sad English teacher who inches upward out of depression. In "Downsizing," Paul Heafy (most likely Giamatti again) is the sad occupational therapist at a Con-Agra frozen food plant in Omaha, Nebraska who crawls through life with an Ok job, an Ok wife (probably Reese Witherspoon though the role is relatively, ahem, "small"), and little ambition for much else. He tends to his sick mother, waits 10 minutes for every drugstore prescription despite calling ahead and smokes pot to mask his depressive life. Paul's life is miserable until he learns about human's new-found ability to get small.
Get Small, Live On Less For Less, Save the Planet. Yep. Small. "Downsizing," after all, starts off in Norway and takes place in a not-too-distant future where humans are now able to shrink themselves to 1/8 their size as a means to battle over-consumption and the rapid depletion of earth's natural resources, thanks to enlightened hippie-like Scandinavian scientists. "Smalls" get small, then become members of small cities (Paul moves to a city called Leisureland) protected by large nets (keeps the bugs out) and built like Disney's Celebration Town (all planned, all pre-fabricated). Small people cash-in their savings and retire small; 1 big dollar equals 500 small dollars. Smalls live on less food, less land, and produce less trash. As the story progresses, Americans are free to get small, but in Europe, where resources are beginning to truly run out, legislation arises suggesting 40% of the population get shrunk (whether they like it or not). For the big, the world grows smaller and scarier; for the small, the world grows bigger and scarier.
Natural's Not in It: Dystopian Drama To Discuss Excessive Consumption & Global Fat
Either way, the problems of the real world lurk behind every corner. What's fantastic about the script is the socio and geo-political ramifications of such a global decision. Payne seems to really ask himself while writing this script, "how would people across the planet react on a personal and political level if parts of the human population began to shrink themselves ostensibly to save the planet, but more covertly to re-live the easy life; retire early and sit on their ass?" If you could convert $10,000 of your savings into $5M and retire now to a pre-fab town built for leisure under the guise of saving the planet, would you? No angle is really overlooked here and Payne paints a fascinating and realistic-sounding picture of how the Earth's population would respond. Like all good inventions, good intentions become misused and in the case of "Downsizing," abused too. It's as much of a morality tale as it is a cautionary one.
The Problem of Leisure What to do for Pleasure? This is An Alexander Payne Script. Dry, subtle humor, plain characters that grow colorful, slow-paced revelations, and attention to every-day mundanity ground "Downsizing" in realism and, above all, character. Even though the plot deals with fantastical technology, even though there are scenes between miniature and regular-sized humans, even though the plot deals with earth's devastation (climate change, over-population), illegal immigration, over-consumption, poverty, classism and a new kind of bigotry and intolerance; the characters are what you pay attention to the most. This is Payne. Character above all else. Trouble with character-heavy scripts is that they can sometimes feel like a Ken Burns documentary (long), but dear lord does this man truly know the mechanics of screenwriting.
This 158 Page Script Felt Like a 158 Page Script. True Character takes time and so does reading long-winded scripts and though we dug it, we felt it; this bitch was long. Yes, the characters were real and their process of discovery natural, but damn if we didn't want this thing to end like 25-30 pages earlier than it did. And that's not saying we didn't think the third act was interesting and more than necessary, but still. For the first two-thirds of the script, we see Paul in his natural habitat (again, he's an occupational therapist at a frozen food factory) and watch him convince his wife to get small. Paul then endures a hardship as he enters Leisureland (a divorce, goodbye Witherspoon character, if that is indeed her role), his life slumps, and we visit with others (enter a small import-exporter and a small Chinese dissident named Gong Jiang —
no clue who would play this as the actor has obviously not been named so far Update: a sharp commenter hips us to the fact that Payne has said Chinese actress Gong Li would be his ideal person in the role). In the final act (and a half, felt like), we come back to Paul, watch as he meets new people and begins to see his life for what it's been (boring, limp, spent in line at the pharmacy). Great, but lets condense and tighten! Paul doesn't get small until 45 pages in. Fun, pivotal characters don't get introduced until pages 53 and 75. Boy, we felt it.
At Home She's a Tourist: Or, Extended Intros To New Lead Characters Halfway Through the 2nd Act Hurt Your Flow. Gong Jiang is a "small" Chinese dissident who, along with her dissident brethren, sneak inside a TV box being shipped from China to America. She was forced small by her government illegally. Things go wrong, dissidents don't live through the journey, and this makes for big global news with outraged headlines. It's one of the first instances we see of the miniaturizing process gone wrong and used for un-altruistic means. Gong winds up in Leisureland, doesn't understand the culture at all (small people essentially being fat and lazy and living easy lives with gigantic — relative to size anyhow — pools) and we know its only a matter of time before she collides with Paul. Trouble is, she comes in just as we're wishing to all hell that Paul gets a clue, even a hint of a clue about his own life. Leaving Paul at that point gave us an anxious, oh-fuck feeling. Gong Jiang is a fun, strong, pain-in-the-ass who hates waste (she begins to feed the hungry in Leisureland, hidden from sight that turn out to be non-Caucasians struggling to get by, misled into thinking or miscalculating that being small is another easy land of opportunity), makes asses out of power-consumer Christians, and we dig her (her poor English is a constant source of comedy too). We just instantly wished she'd been around earlier so we wouldn't have had to leave Paul to meet her at that moment.
Same Goes for Javier. Javier Gonzalez Gonzalez (probably the role Sacha Baron Cohen would play) is by far the single cheeriest character in the script and he's an excellent and hilarious spark to the story. An import-exporter that lives upstairs from Paul who quickly steps in and changes his life. But Javier doesn't drop onto the scene until page 75! He's easy going, vivacious, funny, and fresh. He's the first person we meet and don't instantly start feeling sorry for. He gets Paul drunk, gets Paul to loosen up and smile, and suddenly the next morning its a new world and Paul is on the move towards a less-lame life. We seriously dug Javier and dug the lightness he brought to acts four and five (inside joke, scripts are normally three acts) and noticed the ground shift when he entered the scene.
This is Like Alexander Payne's Take On "Children of Men." This thing is sprawling and ambitious and it's not so much a "comedy." It doesn't really contain the wry satirical notes of "Election" or "Citizen Ruth," and is much more a soulful, humanist dramedy in the vein of 'Schmidt' or "Sideways." It's equally as patient as those two films and then some. The final act takes us to Spain (where a "small" city has been bombed by big terrorists) and then to Norway (where the Norwegian inventors of getting "small" have decided that humanity is about to fail and that new drastic measures must be taken). Paul, Gong Jiang, and Javier are all there and we're with them asking ourselves, what would we do if we knew for sure the end was not far away?
The Body is Good Business Sell out, Maintain the Interest. We loved the characters, the concept, and the ending. We loved the detail and the inferred, slow-mo pacing, but this script needs to enter a shrinking machine of its own (sorry, too soon?). The first and second acts need to be mashed together to become the first act, the third, fourth, and fifth acts need to be mashed together and trimmed down to become the second and third. We're thinking re-write and probably so if Fox Searchlight are the people who were going to put this out under their aegis. We'll be there opening day to see how "Downsizing" plays onscreen (if it does eventually make it), we just hope this epic gets whittled down to a shorter version of the solid, original story that's already there. You can also speculate that any studio would shrink (sorry) away from telling this kind of story these days (too close to home). Maybe 2010 or 11 when all of our own worldly problems (and economic film climate) have hopefully taken a turn for the better? — Andrew Hart
Casting* While all the other actors announced so far seem to have pretty apparent roles, it's unclear what role Meryl Streep (allegedly attached before project was "shelved" or put-off for now) would have played had the film gone into production as scheduled. It's possible she could have played the Scandinavian scientist who creates the genesis of the shrinking technology with her husband scientist (we kept thinking Peter Stormare would be perfect here), but that's just our best, most-logical guess. Both parts are relatively small and only appear in the beginning and conclusion. She could play Giamatti's mom, but then she'd be in the film for all of three pages and that would be a hell of an expensive cameo.
And or "Downsizing" Looks At The Personal & Global Politics Of Getting Small