Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Jason Sudeikis
Runtime: 135 Minutes
Downsizing has one of the more unique high concept premises to emerge in the past year; a technological breakthrough in Norway is created that can irreversibly shrink people down to the size of five inches. Although initially conceived as a means of tackling the worlds growing overpopulation issue, it becomes accepted as a viable form of living by “downsizing” middle-class families and living in miniature social communities as it increases the standard of living by their lower consumption of resources and requirements for living.
This is a fantastically fertile premise for socio-political commentary and carries with it a satirical underpinning so open to possibility and world-building that its amazing Pixar hasn’t yet tackled something similar. But Downsizing is the sad evidence that sometimes even a great director, writer, cast and crew can bungle a premise under the right (or wrong) circumstances.
The first act of the film is great at laying down the groundwork of a conceptually believable universe surrounding the implementation of this new technology, depicting how it works, affects lives and the economic and socially constructive arguments both for and against such a fantastical notion and the way it might actually function in modern society.
The underpinning here seems to be one of sardonic attitudes, whereby the only way the process is made appealing to the masses is by showing them what it can do for them, as opposed to what they can do for the planet. Being sold on a lifestyle they’ve always wanted as inflation would allow middle-class units to become millionaires, and a microcosm of an ideal American society found in the likes of themed communities such as ‘Leisureland’.
But very quickly this all comes undone once lead character Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) makes the change, only to find his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) bailed at the last minute and has left him both tiny and financially less well off in his new miniature world.
What happens from then on is a tiresome journey for Paul in which he learns to find a new life and perspective for himself by appreciating the smaller things in life – and if that pun is already enough to make you wince or grind your teeth with tedium, then the film isn’t going to get much better for you.
All but abandoning its significantly more interesting extrapolations on the social and economic shift that would happen in the wake of a world-changing discovery, we find ourselves stuck with Damon’s dimensionless sad sack of a character as he whines and wonders his way through life and the colourful cast of characters who surround him.
Said surrounding cast really are the only saving graces of the remainder of the film, with Christoph Waltz as Paul’s preposterous aging Serbian party boy neighbour – forming a terrific onscreen duo with companion Udo Kier, who delivers every line equally deliciously – and then there’s Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist shrunk against her will by her government and Paul’s would be new love interest.
While Ngoc Lan Tran is good in the role as the film’s beating heart of a character, her over-the-top accent of broken English (apparently a creative decision of the actor) feels incredibly uncomfortable at points as her bluntness and get to it attitude is only being used as a slightly altered version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl type who only exists to open the main characters eyes and make himself feel better about the world he’s in.
This is one of the more difficult to take aspects of the film, as despite its high ideals toward the gee-whiz specialness of humanity and saving the planet – all of which is taken apart as a fallacy by Waltz at regular intervals – the film is remarkably racist in its presentation of non-white and non-English characters by using stereotypes as a form off odd comedy that feels very miscalculated, including a group of Jamaican gentlemen in one scene that wouldn’t have felt out of place amongst the jellyfish in Shark Tale of all things.
There’s also the lip service being paid to the issues of the impoverished living in the slums on the outside of the ‘Leisureland’ dome, meant as a Mexican border allegory that “the more things change the more they stay the same”, but it only raises more questions about how the world is meant to work despite its intentions by referring to still existing problems with society.
Then there’s the ending. Without spoiling where the film ends up going in the final act, it’s a drastic and muddled turn that aims for a morbid underpinning but doesn’t justify itself with a firm enough point that it’s trying to say beyond the complex qualities of the human condition, which feels at odds with the film’s set up and features major character leaps for Paul that either make no sense or come across as forced and remarkably dumb for such talents writers to resort too.
Downsizing is ultimately a huge let-down given the talent involved. While everything looks visually impressive, beyond Payne’s handling of comedy reaction shots and line delivery it doesn’t feel like a film he’d have made in look or feel beyond certain thematic links to his previous work. It’s a senseless waste of a brilliantly ripe premise, which ironically works against the film’s position on wastefulness of available resources. To call it an admirable failure would be a lie, as that would indicate that it tries harder than it does to feel like something greater than it is.