Downsizing does the bare minimum with its out-of-the-box concept, telling a story that’s dull and uninteresting in execution.
Downsizing is the latest film from director Alexander Payne, who has delivered numerous critical darlings throughout his career, including Oscar-winning films such as Sideways and The Descendants. His first foray into the realm of sci-fi, this project has been noted for being similar to Payne’s earlier movie Election in terms of tone – a light-hearted slice of social satire, only with humanity itself at the center and not just the American political system. Due to the unique premise and Payne’s pedigree, many thought Downsizing could emerge as an awards contender, but it sadly comes up short of its goals. Downsizing does the bare minimum with its out-of-the-box concept, telling a story that’s dull and uninteresting in execution.
Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) lives a simple life in Omaha with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), working as an occupational therapist. The two are desperate to relocate, but are stretched thin financially and do not have the resources for such a move. Everything changes when Paul catches up with his old friend Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) at a class reunion. To Paul’s surprise, Dave has undergone a revolutionary procedure known as downsizing, which shrinks the subject’s body to a fraction of its original size. Learning how better their existence would be if they downsized and moved to luxurious Leisure Land, Paul and Audrey agree to go through with it themselves.
Unfortunately for Paul, Audrey gets cold feet before her procedure, leaving him to live in Leisure Land alone among his fellow small people. Trying to make the most of the situation, Paul befriends his neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and cleaning woman Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), learning that there’s more than meets the eye in this strange new world. Paul eventually has to decide what he wants to do with his life, and could help the human race survive well into the future.
Downsizing comes up well short in the script department – a huge disappointment, considering it was Payne and his longtime writing partner Jim Taylor who penned it. There’s no denying the inventiveness of the concept, but the two do very little with the idea besides presenting a bemusing “what if?” scenario. The story treads water and goes through the motions with no real through-line to follow until well into the film, and by then the central conflict (if it can be called that) is introduced far too late for the audience to truly care. As a result, Downsizing drags towards its conclusion, and clocking in at 2 hours, 15 minutes, could have benefitted from some trimming in order to improve the pacing. The film feels much longer than it is because there’s very little to the narrative.
Payne also struggles to design a cast of compelling characters to keep audiences’ attention. Damon is perfectly fine as Paul, but the actor is doing little more than a riff on the everyday American persona he’s played several times before in his career. The role does very little to challenge Damon, and he doesn’t leave much of an impression. Likewise, Wiig and Sudeikis are completely wasted in thankless parts that go nowhere. Both are introduced as key figures in Paul’s life, but the narrative discards them so easily, neither registers in the grand scheme of things. An argument can be made both are ultimately superfluous since they contribute little to the tale.
The supporting players fare a little better, with Waltz emerging as the MVP of the movie. For all of Downsizing’s shortcomings, there’s inherent joy in watching the Oscar-winner portray a sleazy playboy who enjoys partying all night long. This isn’t Waltz’s best work in his career, but it’s a great showcase for his range and he’ll be the favorite of many. Chau’s Ngoc Lan, on the other hand, is memorable in part for the wrong reasons, as the role riskily toes the line of culturally-insensitive stereotype. Looking past the problematic elements of the role, Chau makes the most of the material and is responsible for most of Downsizing’s laughs and some emotional moments. While the actress gives a good performance, the relationship she forms with Damon’s Paul is underdeveloped and doesn’t pay off the way Payne intended.
While Downsizing is a mess in terms of the screenplay, Payne does have a strong eye for visuals behind-the-camera, and the movie looks good on the big screen thanks to the efforts of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and production designer Stefania Cells. As one would expect, the crew has fun playing with the world they created, especially once Paul enters the land of the small. There are some obvious, yet effective, cues that contrast the environments of “regular” people with the tiny, making the latter look infinitely more appealing. With a tighter, more-focused script, Payne might have had something special here, but the nice-looking pictures can only go so far.
In the end, Downsizing is an unfortunate disappointment to close out 2017, failing to reach the greatness its various pieces are certainly capable of. Getting bogged down in a muddled message about saving the planet and helping others, the film never engages the audience and is surprisingly lacking in meaningful drama or stakes. This is an idea that sounded much better on-paper than how it plays out. It’s almost as if Payne was at a loss of what to do once Paul went small and never thought beyond the catchy high-concept of its basic setup. With Downsizing not gaining any traction on the awards circuit this year, cinephiles have no real reason to rush out to catch this one in theaters – especially with all else that’s playing this holiday season.
Downsizing is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 135 minutes and is rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, and drug use.
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