It hasn’t been a very good festival for my Boston brethren Matt Damon. It’s not Damon’s fault, mind you, it’s that he’s given little (hehe) to work with in Alexander Payne’s DOWNSIZING and to a lesser extent, George Clooney’s SUBURBICON. Both prestige titles hail from Paramount, and while each project makes sense on paper, they both offer weak material that leaves Damon stranded. It doesn’t matter how good an actor you are if you’re stuck in a lame-duck story.
Downsizing and Suburbicon couldn’t be more different, and yet the share some of the same strengths and weaknesses. Downsizing finds Damon eager to do good in the world, while Suburbicon finds him channeling his Mr. Ripley-esque dark side once again, though to considerably lesser effect. While I was personally looking forward to both films, there’s a reason neither was included on the Tracking Board’s initial list of Best Picture nominees. I’ve been hearing very mixed things about Downsizing for months, and was positively shocked when the trades flipped for it out of Venice, with some respected critics proclaiming it’s Payne’s best film! Um… it’s easily his worst. The plot is so unfocused, and after an intriguing first act, things go downhill — or just nowhere — quite quickly.
Damon and Kristen Wiig play a couple who decide to undergo a medical procedure called “downsizing” that shrinks normal adults down to about five hairless inches, in order to live their best lives together. Except that when Damon wakes up the size of a finger, he learns that his wife has chickened out. Now he’s all alone in a wonderland full of happy couples and families. Pathetic, right? A night of partying with his neighbor (Christoph Waltz) leads him to meet Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, Inherent Vice), a one-legged Vietnamese refugee who escaped from prison only to work as a cleaning lady. They have a long, boring courtship before some climate change shit hits the fan in the third act. That’s the movie. Despite its high concept, it’s super dull, and there were dozens of walkouts at the P&I screening I attended on Saturday morning.
Remember when you read that actors like Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, Jason Sudeikis, James Van Der Beek and the great Margo Martindale had been cast in a new Alexander Payne movie? Remember how excited you were? Well, they’re all in this film for about five minutes each, if that. Yup, it’s that kind of movie.
And then there’s Suburbicon, which can’t even be called a movie, since it’s really two movies in one. See, there’s a really straightforward, predictable plot in which Matt Damon and his sister-in-law (Julianne Moore) scheme to kill his wife (Moore again) for the insurance money, right under the nose of his young son (Noah Jupe). The original script was written by the Coen brothers, and you can see how this may have been written as a black comedy in the vein of Fargo… except in Clooney’s hands, none of it is funny. That shouldn’t come as a huge surprise considering Clooney also directed Leatherheads and The Monuments Men, which were also billed as “comedies.” What’s actually funny is that for a guy who is a notorious prankster on set, Clooney is a bit humorless as a filmmaker.
Meanwhile, running parallel to this insurance scam storyline is an ill-conceived subplot about an African-American family who moves in next door to Damon, prompting the entire neighborhood to lose its collective shit — because all white people are racist caricatures. The local grocery store jacks up their prices, and people pound pots and pans 24 hours a day in front of the black family’s house, hoping to drive them out of their lily-white suburban utopia. Though wouldn’t that just annoy everyone and keep them all awake?
I can see the juxtaposition that Clooney is going for here — everyone is worried about this black family when something stinks at Damon’s house — but what’s ironic is how poorly integrated the integration subplot is with the main story. It feels like Clooney is trying to tell too many stories in Suburbicon… which is the exact same problem Payne has in Downsizing.
Just look at the trailer, or the summary on IMDb Pro: “A home invasion rattles a quiet family town.” Except the town isn’t really rattled at all! And that summary, like the trailer, doesn’t really include the African-American family. By the way, I don’t even know if we hear the father of that family — maybe he has one line — so in a sense, Clooney is silencing his own black characters. I get it, “Don’t show ’em nothing!” But this is a movie, so ya gotta show me something!
I kept hoping that Oscar Isaac would show up and give Suburbicon the lift it so desperately needed, but he’s only in two scenes, which aren’t enough to save the film. At least he provides a bit of eccentric energy along with the film’s two villains (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) and a pair of incredulous FBI agents. Damon and Moore aren’t nearly as memorable, which is a problem. Coincidentally, Downsizing has a similar problem, as the supporting actors (Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier) look like the only ones having any fun.
Damon was excellent a couple years ago in The Martian, which reminded everyone just how good he can be with the right script. But since that film, he’s done The Great Wall (35 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), the god-awful Jason Bourne (55 percent) and these two Toronto movies, which currently sit at 49 percent (Suburbicon) and an inexplicable 79 percent fresh for Downsizing that will almost certainly sink following this morning’s press screening.
Hey, if you think multiple mispronunciations of the surname “Safranek” sounds hilarious, then Downsizing may be for you. As for me, I just hope that Damon gets his mojo back fast, be it with RFK or, as rumored, Ness. There aren’t many true movie stars left these days, though Damon is still one of them. However, if he keeps signing up for these sub-par scripts, his career as a leading man may be what gets downsized. Because in Hollywood, like Suburbicon, there’s always some lookalike willing to take your place.
Jeff Sneider | Editor in Chief