The biggest ideas come in the form of the smallest packages, in Alexander Payne’s newest thought-provoking dramedy. ‘Downsizing’ imagines what might happen if, as a solution to over-population, humans could be shrunk to a height of 5 inches (13 cm), after Norwegian scientists discover how to do just that. A 200-year global transition from big to small is proposed, but there is one catch: the procedure cannot be reversed. People soon realize how much further money goes in a miniaturized world, and with the promise of a better life, everyman Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in Omaha in order to become small and move to a new downsized community—a choice that triggers life-changing adventures. To Paul’s horror and outrage, he finds out that Audrey backed out at the last second. After the couple understands that they do not have a future together, they divorce and Paul must now figure out how to start his life over in a completely different world. ‘Downsizing’ is written and directed by Alexander Payne, and is rated R for adult language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
Alexander Payne as a director is one of my very favorites going today because no two films of his are similar. When you think about the hits that he has conjured up, like ‘Election’, ‘Sideways’, ‘Nebraska’, and ‘The Descendents’, you think about films that are all different, yet equally as insightful for the kind of deep-seeded message that they all entail. ‘Downsizing’ definitely continues that train of thought, but does it in a way that Payne’s thought-provoking stance might have gotten the best of him. The film certainly questions and debates much of the world’s problems involving over-population, inequality, and even materialism amongst a capitalist society, but those are just ideas, and deep beyond the table dressing, films require a main course for its audience to feast on, and this is the problem that the plagues the second half of this film from ever feeling like social commentary that is ahead of its time. Without a proper destination where the characters and plot can meet and divulge on these ideals, the film feels like a constant reminder instead of the poignant resolution that we all deserve.
As far as world building is concerned, you probably won’t find a film better than ‘Downsizing’ this year. For the entire first half of this picture, Payne as a writer not only prospers the film’s idea of the kind of benefits that being small will have on a personal level, but also in the negativity that it will harbor in wiping record number of citizens from a society that relies on them to do their parts. What I find so poignant about this position from Payne is that he doesn’t lean one way or the other on which side is wrong or right, and instead lets the audience soak in all of the details, and details he lays at the doorstep. I was greatly impressed at how much homework that Payne did in painting this vivid picture from many of the distant angles that require such an immense step in humanity’s progression. The film takes place over the span of many years, feeding into what goes into passing such a procedure, as well as the very precautions of such a procedure in itself that makes this anything but an easy pull of the switch. It was in this area of the film where I couldn’t wait to see where it was headed, and just when I thought I knew what was to come creatively with what Payne was depicting, I fell into such a slouch at how little the film works out for itself in the second half.
This is where the film completely falls apart in my mind. Instead of focusing on the negatives that Paul’s character didn’t see for himself before he made the decision, film introduces and builds around a direction to help everyone else. This is noble intentionally, but feels adjacent to everything that we have learned about the film to this point. In fact, the very mention of Downsizing is limited over the second half of this movie, feeling like you took a second and third act installment from any other movie about environmental distress and attached it to a film about self-prospering. Sure the idea that a person can change is always there, but Paul as a character feels so selfish and easily influenced that I can’t for a second think that he would care this deeply about other people who don’t involve him. To hammer this thought process home, he even tries to elude a Vietmese character that he meets because she has gotten to be too annoying to him. And of course because they are the main focus for male and female characters here, they will of course hook up and become romantic interests for the rest of the film, harboring no chemistry between them that makes this believable even in the slightest.
The visual effects are simple, but effective in depicting this bigger world feel when nothing has changed except the character in question. I say simple because all the production really has to do is film minutes of background with a small camera and display it against the green screen that our live action actors work in front of. If simplicity is what you’re going for with trying to save valuable production costs, then I feel the team here made a great decision, but I can’t help but feel an overwhelming layer of missed opportunities from their decision. Even the audio distortion from a smaller bodied person is included, even though it’s only needed for a couple of times during the first half hour. Besides this, I was slightly disappointed that they really didn’t do a lot of eye-catching effects in the big-versus-small worlds that Paul and company have come and gone from, and even the enormous vodka bottle from the trailers is noticeably missing from the finished product. To add more to the second half handicaps, the final hour is presented from Paul’s level, so needless to say there are no comparisons in artistic integrity that the film could’ve harvested for itself. It’s almost like Payne forgot that this was a film first-and-foremost that centered around this life-altering decision, and that he would instead rather proceed with a 130 minute commercial about environmental responsibility. Snooze.
Most of the central cast is wasted, including Damon whose Paul never inspires us in seeing his suddenly new selfless perspective. When Damon is allowed to be charismatic and let loose on the limited screenplay, he can be quite likeable in his innocence in being alone in a new world, but much of the film requires him to grow up quickly, and there’s just not enough versatility as a lead for his character to prosper on. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a scene that is very much in poor taste with what has recently broken about Damon, in which he makes a move on a sleeping female character. It’s all in bad timing, and does zero in presenting any kind of chemistry long term between them. Hong Chau is probably the most important character to where the film is headed in its later acts, but her character is so Vietmesed-up by the studio that it feels like an almost borderline racially insensitive direction from a writer who doesn’t know better. She’s loud, mispronouncing, and occasionally judging. None of which paint her in the best of lights. Probably the only actor who benefited from this was Christoph Waltz as Paul’s new party-hard neighbor Dushan. At first, I worried that Waltz would be an antagonist of sorts for Damon because (lets be honest) that’s what Waltz does. But as the film progresses, it’s clear that Waltz endures a level of much-needed heart to the film that proves that maybe humanity wasn’t lost in the surgery to go small.
THE VERDICT – ‘Downsizing’ is a big idea plagued by a small execution. With a credible voice like Payne at the helm, it’s a bit of a surprising disappointment that his film feels like a great idea that is speeding to a red light of conformity by the film’s anti-climatic ending. It wastes away a talented cast and thought-provoking introduction for a film about a newly-rich white male caring about the lower class. If that’s not believable, Damon’s bland performance won’t win you over as well, carrying with him a personality that is every bit as small as his newly shrunken size.