In an era where many major studio releases fail to bring interesting or creative premises to the table, Alexander Payne’s latest undertaking looked like a breath of fresh air. A story that takes cues from such sci-fi classics as The Incredible Shrinking Man and Fantastic Voyage, but rendered in a way that puts contemporary American society and globalization under the microscope, sounds like it would be a slam dunk in more ways than one. Alas, we got Downsizing instead.
Matt Damon plays a kindly occupational therapist named Paul, who, after growing tired of being confined to a mediocre, middle-class lifestyle with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decides to shrink himself down to five inches tall and live in a utopia of other tiny people who have done the same—where their assets are gargantuanly higher and they can reduce their impact on the environment in a major way.
Upon undergoing miniaturization, it becomes readily apparent that this ‘smalltopia’ still has the same problems and inequalities that exist in the larger world. To make matters worse, the looming threat of extinction has rendered the process as too little, too late. The oncoming apocalypse rears its head and becomes a point of concern to many of the world’s leading minds. Yes, the film you’ve been bombarded with trailers for, featuring comically large objects (of which there are not nearly enough scenes of) and Talking Heads songs, gets super dark in its third act, and the way its lodged in could not be more off-balance.
At nearly 140 minutes, Downsizing suffers from being wildly all over the place with ambition, as it oscillates between aimless padding and overly-important social commentary. The way Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor play with tone and pace is akin to the feeling of watching four short films around the same principal idea, stitched together in an awkward, uneven manner. Case in point, a sequence midway through shows Damon attending a house party thrown by his upstairs neighbor Dusean (Christoph Waltz), as he begins to live outside his comfort zone. The scene goes on for a languid 15 minutes, and doesn’t really add anything that couldn’t have been summarized in a quick, flashy montage. Instead, we get to watch Damon awkwardly mingle with bourgeoise Europeans and make an ass out of himself as the momentum comes to a complete halt (if you are looking for a bathroom break, this would be the ideal time to do it!).
The concept and the messages that entail could have been utilized so much better, yet the generic, everyman, mid-life crisis narrative muddles and drags the whole thing down. Near the start, the film hints at exploring mankind’s sustainability in an ever-increasingly despondent era, however, this aspect ends up taking a backseat to a micro-focused plot revolving around one guy having to start his whole life over after making an honest mistake. True, this serves as a way for Payne to develop a socially-aware liberal fantasy with macro and micro-intentions, but it’s a crushing disappointment to see such an idea told in the blandest of ways.
Downsizing was meant to be Payne’s follow-up project to his 2004 smash hit Sideways, and one that would have featured a slew of actors he’s worked with in the past, like Paul Giamatti and Reese Witherspoon. Another iteration of the production was to be made as a television series, which, certainly explains the over-encompassing episodic structure. Had things been boiled to a steady, focused premise, it could have made for a certainly compelling foray into genre territory, and a complete departure from the stark and desolate atmosphere conjured by his last feature, 2013’s Nebraska.
The lone bright spot comes from the supporting performance by Hong Chau (Inherent Vice), who deserves praise this awards season for giving a genuine performance as Ngoc Lan amongst an ensemble of people merely phoning it in. Chau’s performance has received a great deal of controversy, with many believing it to be a racist stereotypical construction, though it could be argued that it’s her character’s placement in the story and it being viewed through Damon’s POV that inflicts this mentality.
Outside of Damon, a wildly sporadic cast of characters is featured, some of whom are only seen for two or three scenes like Jason Sudeikis, and others that are only featured for a few brief moments (James Van Der Beek, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, character actress Margo Martindale). Christoph Waltz is certainly a highlight as an aging party boy turning a big profit through manufacturing premium-brand products in miniature form, and he is joined by the always great Udo Kier—the pair are responsible for some of the best gags in the entire film.
It’s a shame that Downsizing struggles to do too much at once with its premise, given that compared to the bulk of Payne’s filmography, this is easily the most optimistic thing he’s made to date. Accepting the fact that mankind’s impact on the environment is irreversible, it beckons us to consider that less is not always more, and that we should appreciate what good things we have and do all we can to help others while we are still here. The way this is rendered in the finale has an inkling of the type of conclusion you’d see in a classic 1940s Hollywood movie, akin to something directed by Frank Capra or Preston Sturges. Perhaps Payne wants to leave us with a sentiment of goodwill, harkening back to a difficult, yet romanticized era. Sadly, Downsizing doesn’t come close to earning such a moment, as its excruciating execution and shallow concept make for an ultimately disposable and forgettable sci-fi satire.