Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
After a scientific breakthrough in Norway that enables the shrinking of humans, American average joe Paul (Damon) and his not-content-with-average wife Audrey (Wiig) decide to take part in the potentially planet- and mankind-saving act commonly known as “downsizing”. Following the procedure and some time after, Paul finds himself in circumstances he never thought he would, and these circumstances keep rolling into Paul’s life as scientists start to realise the human race is beyond saving. So why does an ironically large story leave its audience feeling short?
Rammed with social commentary (global warming, immigration, poverty, to name a few) and little real opinion, writer-director Payne not only takes his protagonist, Paul, to places he could not have foreseen, but drags his audience along with it. If you’ve seen any of the trailers you will likely go into the movie with a fairly neat idea of what to expect: unhappy regular sized humans shrink themselves for a better life, though all will probably not be as it seems in their new small world. As much as that assumption is basically true, unfortunately the trailer(s) are rather misleading: small people drinking from a gigantic bottle of vodka are nowhere to be seen; Paul’s apparent disdain at his call centre job which actually happens post-downsizing rather than the implication that it’s part of his decision to downsize; Audrey in her job as a shoe saleswoman when in the film we don’t see her in a working environment at all; Jason Sudeikis’ appearance in the trailer suggests a larger screen presence from the popular comedian, whereas his actual screen time amounts to something like five minutes all together. Payne clearly wanted the film to go in a certain direction but he allowed it to take off on all sorts of tangents instead, gradually (at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, VERY gradually) losing itself and any points Payne may have been trying to make.
The story itself knows not what it’s doing or saying. It’s like a few different stories have been loosely threaded together to make one very patchy film. At one point Paul reiterates all the events that have transpired involving himself and he can’t quite believe it – and frankly neither can we. As if the notion of shrinking human beings wasn’t out there enough, everything that happens to Paul is just too unlikely, too unrelatable. Rather than sending him on a journey that sees him shrink down, move to New Mexico, visit Norway where the very first small colony was established and experience all the existential occurrences in-between, it would have been far more interesting, in an Orwellian, social-experiment way, to see how the community Paul joins, Leisureland, adjusts and thrives (or not). It would have been more beneficial for writers Payne and Jim Taylor to explore aspects of Leisureland, such as the shantytown Paul visits after befriending a Vietnamese immigrant named Ngoc (Chau) who lives there, in that it is a complete juxtaposition to the Leisureland advertised. This would have made for a stronger story and plot setup rather than giving us frustratingly brief glimpses into the more interesting potential storylines that constantly barrage Paul, like the shantytown and all the colourful characters that he meets. Going after the bigger picture – the destruction of mankind (ending with one of possibly the worst uses of a deus ex machina I’ve ever seen) – is usually a storyline best left to a sequel.
Payne’s first choice to play the part of Paul was, apparently, Paul Giammati. Giammati would likely have been a more suitable actor to the role – Damon still retains too much of an air of Jason Bourne or The Martian’s Mark Watney about him (at times Downsizing doesn’t feel a million miles from The Martian in its chosen themes). Beer gut or no beer gut, Damon is a proven lead actor, whereas Giammati is, more often than not, relegated to the supporting role. With his constant expository dialogue Paul often comes across as a supporting character when up against the likes of Waltz’s Dusan and Chau’s Ngoc, with Chau’s Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress proving such. Her performance is wonderfully (and perhaps accidentally) comedic, often endearing and is a breath of fresh air around a stagnant story. Paul’s declaration that he is meant for something bigger is only truly realised when, thanks to Ngoc, he understands what (and who) that really involves (life spoiler: it’s more than just oneself). She is perhaps the one true saving grace of this movie. And within that breath of fresh air, if Ngoc is the inhale, then Dusan is the exhale. Waltz’s character is just as relieving but in a different way. Dusan’s eccentricity and go-with-the-flow attitude provides plenty of comic relief, often with just a single facial expression or word. Supported by Udo Kier’s character Konrad, Waltz shines brighter than Damon in each scene they share. Throw Chau into the mix and Damon easily fades into the background.
Once Paul has been shrunken down we are provided with next to no insight as to what has been going on in the larger world, other than the discovery that methane is causing more ice to melt and that mankind is due an apocalypse. Fair enough the film is entirely from Paul’s perspective, but that proves detrimental to the film as a whole. Using the excuse that he “hadn’t watched the news lately” is lazy. Scientists declaring there are no side effects to downsizing sounds like an excuse to skip any potential storylines. In fact, the entire notion of “downsizing” appears to be utterly meaningless. Every single thing that happens could easily have happened at full height. It’s as though Payne and Taylor knew they wanted to write something that said something, but needed an extra MacGuffin to make it stand out. In a world where all facets of every art form is scrutinised for what it may or may not be saying about current affairs, whether political, environmental, cultural etc., if one is to make a film like Downsizing, there needs to be a focus. It’s too full of holes and unsure of which societal problem it wants to pursue. Perhaps Payne and Taylor should have downsized their ideas before downsizing their characters.