Booze, women, and movies: These are the wastes of substance that Senator Charles E. Grassley specified, in early December, as weaknesses of the financially and morally impoverished. Guilty as charged. I like all three, and I don’t have a penny.
So welcome, fellow culpable spendthrifts, to the end-of-year movie column, where I suggest new ways to diminish America’s greatness! By the time this is over, I will have encouraged you to throw your money away on the silly spectacle of Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, the anti-Trump propaganda of Steven Spielberg’s The Post, and an inexplicable period melodrama (with plenty of couture and cocktail music) by Paul Thomas Anderson, titled Phantom Thread, that’s sure to leave you shrugging.
Payne’s Downsizing (written with the help of his long-standing collaborator Jim Taylor) is a cheerful fantasy on the subjects of ecological doom, intractable class and race divisions, and the supremacy of marketing over human affairs. Bright with the blue of billboard skies and the gold of sales brochures, it also shines with the blinding fluorescence of a private medical center, where Matt Damon, in his American Everyman mode, gets himself reduced to a perfectly proportioned five inches tall. The miniaturization is another reason why this deeply pessimistic story bounces along so genially. You can’t feel too bad when a thousand visual tricks, executed so they’re charmingly obvious, turn the movie into a toymaker’s wonderland.
A director who thrives on the visual and emotional power of real American locations, sometimes beautiful (Sideways, The Descendants) but more often workaday and down-at-the-heels (About Schmidt, Nebraska), Payne has never before practiced the Santa’s-workshop method of filmmaking. He’s done it now so he can match his style to the ingenuity of the premise. Say that a marvelous invention can lessen humanity’s toll on the environment by making people tiny—on a voluntary basis, of course. Say that this Earth-saving technology migrates from research institutes and NGOs into the hands of American corporations, which convert it into a scheme for selling lifetime memberships in communities that are not just gated but bell-jarred. In subdivisions with names like The Summit at Navajo Orchards, miniature people can now enjoy the McMansions of their dreams while feeling they’ve done something for the planet. Will Matt Damon and his wife, Kristen Wiig, go on fretting over their bills in Omaha, in the cramped and dowdy house that’s all they can afford? Or will they do the right thing by retiring to the Southwest in early middle age, to the minuscule but ultra-high-bourgeois comfort of Leisureland?