Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Screenplay Review - Downsizing

Genre: Drama?  Sci-fi?  Comedy?
Premise: In the near future, a new scientific procedure allows people to shrink themselves to four inches tall, which reduces their carbon imprint on the planet, putting less stress on the environment.  But this shrinking leads to a whole new set of problems.
About: Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants, Election) was getting ready to make this a couple of years back but, at the last second, moved away from it and made The Descendants instead.  Although no one’s stated exactly WHY the project was ditched, I have a pretty good idea after reading the script.    
Writers: Alexander Payne
Details: 157 pages – undated



Am I in the Twilight Zone? 

This has to be one of the strangest scripts I’ve ever read by a professional screenwriter.  Even Charlie Kaufman is going, “Dude, you went off the reservation with this one, buddy.” 

Now going off the reservation can be a good thing.  Most writers write stories smack dab in the middle of the reservation.  Which is why they’re so predictable and boring.  This is anything but predictable.  However, there’s a point when you have to say, “Maybe I’ve gone too far.”  And, actually, it appears that this Academy Award Winning writer realized that, which is why he made The Descendants instead.

So what is Downsizing? 

Maybe I’ll find out during this review. 

A Norweigen scientist named Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen accidentally discovers how to shrink living matter down to 1/6000th of its original size.  The implications of this are extraordinary.  In a world where we’re destroying our resources on an hourly basis, the idea of shrinking someone down to the point where they leave 1/6000th of a carbon footprint on the planet could be the difference between losing our world and saving it.

Four years later, “downsizing” is becoming a niche trend.  It’s not just about saving the environment, either.  Because you consume so little as a little guy, downsizing makes you RICH beyond your wildest dreams.  A couple hundred thousand bucks translates to the equivalent of 20 million bucks in the downsized world.  Think about it.  A normal big mac could feed 4000 downsized people.  A downsized mansion only needs eight feet of space. 

The central hub for most downsized peeps is a place called Leisureland Estates – the first full-time city dedicated to downsized folks.  It’s here where our hero, the underachieving painfully unambitious Paul, is thinking of spending his future.  Paul doesn’t have a lot of money.  He’s one of many Americans feeling the pinch of that day to day grind.  Miniaturizing himself would change all that.  He’d be rich.  He’d never have to worry about money again.  It seems like a win-win.

After speaking to his wishy-washy wife, Audrey, she agrees to go through the process with him.  So after all the prep and legalese, the two are split up, shaved, oiled, and thrown into the gamma-ray shrinking whatchumacalit.  But when Paul comes out, he notices that his wife isn’t around.


Yup, turns out his wife chickened out.  She doesn’t want to be miniaturized.  Paul is furious, but in that way that some ladies are known to do, ahem, she turns it around and blames it on him.  Either way, it’s over.  Miniaturizing is irreversible and it’s kind of hard to have a relationship with someone 20 times your size. 

But this is where Downsizing gets really freaky.  We switch gears to a group of downsized Chinese immigrants who try to sneak into America via a TV box.  All of them die except for one, a woman named Gong Jiang, who’s just barely survived, even though she lost her foot in the process.   

Apparently China was illegally miniaturizing people to put less strain on the country and these test subjects had escaped.  So we’re going to get a feel-good story about this miniaturized woman overcoming adversity, right?

Errr, no. 

Gong is the most annoying person you can imagine.  And not in a subjective way.  She’s written to be REALLY ANNOYING.  She barely speaks English and spends the majority of her time chastising everyone for not doing enough to help the world.  She’s baffled by how much the Americans waste, going so far as to recycle their trash, since much of it could still be used in China.

What this has to do with the story, I have no idea.

Eventually, some international businessman named Javier enters Paul’s life and tries to get him back on track.  But Paul is still devastated by the loss of Audrey, even though it happened over a year ago.  Move on buddy.  It’s over.  Nope.  Instead, Paul is inactive and boring and whiney.  Is there ANY character we want to root for here??

Even now, I’m not sure what happens at the end.  I know they go off to some Mexican version of Leisureland where everyone’s much poorer.  It’s there where Paul and Javier and Gong all connect.  A love story develops between Gong and Paul, even though she’s annoying and the two have absolutely no chemistry.  It’s as if Payne said – “well, they’re the male and female leads in the film, so they HAVE to get together!”

Paul continues to be depressed.  Gong continues to be annoying.  And Javier continues to derail the story with random missions.  And that, my friends, is Downsizing!

There are so many things wrong with this script, I don’t know where to begin. I’m desperately hoping this is an early draft and Payne was just trying to get all his thoughts down on paper.  I also have to take into consideration that Payne is such a unique voice that some of the things that don’t make sense on the page will make sense on the screen.  And finally, all writer-directors tend to overwrite, since they use the script to remind them what to shoot later on.

But even with all that, this is a mess.  First of all, the main character is passive. This is like Screenwriting 101 – one of the first things you learn.  If your main character isn’t after anything, the whole movie’s going to sit there.  Look at Payne’s last movie,  The Descendents.  Clooney had to take care of all the logistical stuff before pulling the plug on his wife.  Not the most heartwarming story but at least he was ACTIVE.  At least he had things to do.

Paul just sits around feeling sorry for himself 75% of the time.  When you do that, it makes the character boring and by association the story boring.  So the script was pretty much doomed from the start.  Even if everything else was perfect, that component of a story is so important that it’s a bona fide script killer.

Then Payne makes the decision to have about a dozen time jumps in the movie.  Pulling off ONE time jump in a script is hard enough.  And it usually needs to happen right away, like within 10 pages of the opening after a flashback sequence or something.  But here we get 4 month jumps, 4 year jumps, six month jumps, 2 year jumps.  When you have so many jumps, it sucks all the urgency out of your story.  And as we all know from GSU, you want SOME sense of urgency in your story.

Again, to use The Descendents as an example, the urgency came via the need to sign the deal with the hotel owners to net himself and his family members millions of dollars. I think it was something like a two week deadline.  This gave that story a sense of urgency.  Imagine if we would’ve taken a 2 year jump in the middle of that story.  Then a 2 month jump.  Then an 8 month jump.  We would’ve been like, “Huh?”

And I get that Downsizing is a different story with a trickier setup – one that seemingly requires time to pass so we can push the evolution of downsizing along.  But that’s one of the challenges you have to figure out as a screenwriter.  You have to figure out a way to place us in the now, not in twelve different “nows.” 

I mean sure, Mad Max could’ve had a 50 minute prelude that took place over several time periods to show us how we got to a point where the last remaining people on earth were fighting for fuel, but instead they gave us a 2-minute opening montage/voice over and put us smack dab in the “present” in order to give the story urgency.

But where this script really went off the rails for me was Gong.  I have no idea why this character was included or what the hell she had to do with the rest of the story. 
I mean, why give her an amputated foot?  What did that have to do with ANYTHING?  It just felt like the entire movie turned into something else once she arrived.  And worst of all, that movie could’ve taken place outside the downsized world.  Why create a movie about downsizing if you’re not going to explore the specific issues of being downsized?

And who is Javier?  I still don’t know.  All I know is that on page 100, he practically becomes the protagonist.

I am BEYOND BAFFLED by this screenplay.  It’s so bizarre.  It’s so off.  It’s so all over the place…I’m still not sure what I read.  And you know what that means…

[x] what the hell did I just read?
[  ] not for me
[  ] worth the read
[  ] impressive
[  ] genius

What I learned: For heaven’s sake – OUTLINE!  When you outline, you prevent the need to make it all up as you go along.  When you make stuff up as you go along, you have severed feet and Chinese immigrants touting Christianity and sending your characters into an underground community for 7000-8000 years while the world reboots and Spanish businessman that have nothing to do with anything.  Use the outlining stage to explore ideas on a macro level so you can see what fits and what doesn’t BEFORE integrating it into your screenplay.  Outlining would’ve helped Downsizing tremendously.