We are meant for something bigger.
Alexander Payne hasn’t really made a bad movie, just look at the guy’s back catalog: Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013). Downsizing, however, is Payne’s first real misstep, the filmmaker squandering a fascinating concept to focus on one boring schmuck’s soul-searching journey — yawn. Set in the near future, Downsizing toys with the idea of ‘shrinking’ the human population (quite literally) in order to help save the planet, those who choose to ‘go small’ able to live less wasteful more luxurious lives. Brimming with social satire, stellar FX and clever camera tricks, the opening moments of Downsizing feel ripe with creativity and flair.
The film starts when a Norwegian doctor, Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), stuns the crowd at an international conference on sustainability, where he explains his scientific theory of ‘downsizing’ as a solution to over-population and mass consumption. You see, it turns out that Asbjørnsen had invented technology that was able to safely shrink humans to a height of approximately 5 inches, the doc introducing the world to the first ever teeny-tinny people and the ‘little’ community that was being set up for them — it’s quite amusing to see a teensy man address the crowd from a wee-sized podium that’s sitting atop a normal-sized stand.
Cut to ten years later where we meet Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an average guy who works as an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks for a ‘measly’ lil’ income. Living with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) in the modest house he grew up in, the couple dreams of buying their own home, which, at this point in time, feels beyond their reach. After running into their old pals, Dave (Jason Sudeikis) and Carol Johnson (Maribeth Monroe), at a school reunion, who rave about the positives of downsizing, chiefly its financial benefits (their standard savings translating to millions), Paul and Audrey begin to look into the strange new shrinking fad. Following a tour of the most popular miniaturized estate in New Mexico, a dome-covered utopia called Leisureland, which sees Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern cameo as Jeff and Laura Lonowski, a couple of infomercial-type spokespeople for the micro city, the couple decides to take the plunge.
It’s here where we see the film’s best sequence, viewers witnessing the unique, irreversible process of downsizing; first up, every bit of hair must be removed from a patient’s body, their cosmetic implants and metal fillings also taken out, before they’re placed into a large microwave oven for the shrinking process. When the procedure is complete, nurses (with spatulas) gently pick up the bodies, like freshly baked treats, and then transport them into the bitty metropolis, where little doctors take care of them. When Damon’s Paul wakes he’s greeted by a nurse who hands him a regular-sized packet of crackers, which looks gigantic, as a joke to usher him into his new world.
Now that we’re finally in Leisureland, I was ready to explore several of the exciting conflicts, dilemmas and debates that Payne and regular scribe Jim Taylor, Election (1999), had presented thus far — for instance, there’s a intriguing argument as to whether the co-existing ‘smalls’ should have the same voting rights as the ‘bigs,’ seeing as they only pay a fraction of the taxes. Alas, here’s where Downsizing loses its focus, the second half becoming a tedious, painfully dull slog. Without venturing too much into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Wiig never makes it into the diminutive housing estate, the story shifting its gaze to a bunch of less interesting drivel. Paul gets a monotonous job at a call center, before befriending his upstairs neighbor, a sleazy Eurotrash playboy named Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz).
Struggling to move on, Paul attends some of Dusan’s upper-class parties, where he takes drugs and dances like a buffoon. This boozing eventually leads him to meet Vietnamese maid/ refugee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who was downsized against her will and entered the U.S. illegally by hiding in a HD television box, which was shipped across the pacific, Ngoc having lost all of her comrades and part of her leg in the process.
From hereon in, we’re stuck with Ngoc (an Asian stereotype who speaks in broken English) as she teaches our sad-sack protagonist about selflessness and making good choices — messages that aren’t worth sacrificing larger, better ideas for. Spending time with Ngoc in the slum-ish pint-sized village where she resides, Paul is forced to encounter people and perspectives he’s never before associated with, this giving him a new lease on life. So, what happened to the central premise of downsizing? By the time our heroes venture to Norway to meet the original shrunken colony, where they contemplate some end of the world nonsense, Payne shows us a shadow of a giant dragonfly just in case we forgot that these people are supposed to be pocketable.
Performances are just as uneven. Matt Damon, The Martian (2015), looks disinterested as the dry and dreary middle-American chump Paul Safranek, even when he’s walking around with a bigass flower, whilst Kristen Wiig, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), is completely wasted as his significant other, Audrey. Hong Chau, Inherent Vice (2014), does a good enough job as Ngoc Lan Tran, despite the fact that her migrant character comes across as darn right racist — the ‘what kind of f#ck you give me?’ spiel is a case in point. Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained (2012), is arguably the best part of the film as the over-the-top Dusan, the Austrian-German stealing most of his scenes as Paul’s contraband smuggling neighbor, who makes money via a new means of profiteering — another idea that remains unexplored. Udo Kier, Melancholia (2011), also shows up and has nothing to do as Dusan’s aging buddy, an ex sea captain named Joris Konrad.
Look, at the end of the day, what we have is a 135-minute film with about 40 minutes of good stuff, Downsizing taking a supremely interesting ‘What if?’ and a relatively strong cast and doing zilch with them. What a ‘colossal’ waste of time.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Mr. Movie