Downsizing & Call Me By Your Name

December 30, 2017
Floral tribute.. Downsizing

Last week saw a drought of reviewable films but Boxing Day always brings the deluge. The two most attractive, for me at least, are Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, and Call Me By Your Name by talented Italian director, Luca Guadagnino. The former might be called a comedy of ideas, the second is an unconventional, deeply intimate love story.

Downsizing is a sci-fi satire that promises much but doesn’t quite deliver. Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, have hit upon an idea so fertile that it generates more possible scenarios than can be squeezed into one longish feature. We begin with science conquering the problem of human sustainability, slide into social satire, and end with a mixture of doom and sentimentality.

The film starts in Norway, where scientists manage to shrink a laboratory rat to 0.0364 of its original size. We know what this means, and it’s not long before the scientist, his family and a group of volunteers have been similarly reduced. It’s the dawn of a new era in which a tiny race of humans will consume only a fraction of the resources gobbled up by full-sized folk.

Segue to America, years later, where ‘downsizing’ has become an established social trend. Not only does the process allow you to do something for the planet, it offers extraordinary lifestyle opportunities. This being America, people are shrunk so they can swap their suburban house for a mansion, and watch thousands of dollars in their savings account swell into millions in spending power.

Our hero is Matt Damon’s Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist whose personality seems to have been shrunk since birth. Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig) feel their lives have plateaued. Their careers are in stasis and they can’t afford a bigger house. And so it’s off to Leisureland, a luxury community of tiny people, where they absorb the propaganda and decide to take the plunge. Or at least Paul does.

Alone in his glamorous new community, having been shrunk to the size of mouse, Paul has to reinvent himself. This is where the film is at its best, as Payne imagines the endless possibilities of a downsized world. Paul’s neighbour, Dusan – played with the usual mixture of charm and sleaze by Christoph Waltz – is getting rich by wholesale profiteering. One full-sized Cuban cigar, for instance, offers massive returns when divided into thousands of tiny versions.

He also meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) a Vietnamese activist with a wooden leg, who was forcibly downsized by a tyrannical regime, and now devotes herself to the poor. Yes, the poor! For within this tiny world of extravagant luxury, there is a class of service industry workers who are even poorer than the full-sized poor. Soon Paul’s social conscience is awakening and he finds a new purpose in life. This, as you can imagine, is the point where sharp satire begins to turn maudlin. Always a dull fellow, Paul becomes a virtual cypher, while Ngoc Lan Tran steals the movie.

Up close & personal, Elio and Oliver in 'Call Me By Your Name'

Up close & personal, Elio and Oliver in ‘Call Me By Your Name’

If Downsizing is almost too sweeping and ambitious to sustain its comic pretentions, Call Me By Your Name is a movie of small, brilliant moments that build to a powerful crescendo. The hero of the story is Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old boy living with in northern Italy, in a highly cultured household. Elio’s father, Professor Lyle Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is American, his mother, Annella (Amira Casar) is French. As his father is also a classics scholar, Elio and his younger sister are growing up with a broader outlook on life than might be imagined in the USA.

Every year the Perlmans have a graduate student come and stay for the summer. This year it’s Oliver, played by Armie Hammer in what must be classed as a breakthrough role. Oliver throws himself into the village lifestyle, winning over the locals with his easy charm and good looks. Little by little, he also wins over Elio, who loses interest in his teenage girlfriend, Marzia (Esther Garrel) as he finds himself drawn to the newcomer.

That’s the entire story, but Guadagnino, armed with an excellent script by James Ivory based on a novel by André Aciman (who gets a brief cameo), has turned this into one of the most surprising and touching films of the year. I wrote a few weeks ago that Armie Hammer wasn’t convincing as the homosexual author, James Lord, well this time Armie has nailed it. The burgeoning romance between Oliver and Elio would be a test for any two actors, but Hammer and Chalamet have succeeded so well they are both in line for Oscars.

Guadagnino makes full use of the heat and languid sensuality of an Italian summer to frame this unorthodox coming-of-age tale. He is equally skilful in his use of classical references, which provide a context for the liaison between a teenage boy and an older man. Remember, for the Greeks and Romans it was just a normal part of growing up.

The truly jaw-dropping moment in the story is handed to the professor, who delivers a speech to his son that is so wise and humane it leaves audiences gasping in the dark. It’s ironic that such a film arrives at a time when Australia has just been through the divisive, unnecessary postal survey over same-sex marriage. One wonders if those who voted ‘no’ from fear or prejudice were to have seen this movie, whether they might have reconsidered their narrow outlook on the human heart.

Downsizing
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Starring Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgard
Norway/USA, rated M, 135 mins

Call Me By Your Name
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Written by James Ivory, after a novel by André Aciman
Starring Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
Italy/France/Brazil/USA, rated M, 132 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 January, 2018