UK Release Date: 24th January 2018
Runtime: 135 minutes
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård
Synopsis: A couple decides to take the plunge and become part of a new trend in which environmentally-conscious people choose to shrink themselves in order to help ease population over-crowding and reduce waste.
There was a time, back in the halcyon days of the festival circuit, when Downsizing looked like a serious awards season contender. However, the latest movie from Alexander Payne – director of Sideways and Nebraska – could not be further away from deserving a spot in one of the most impressive and crowded Best Picture contests in years. The film is a muddled and bungled execution of a terrific central concept, like Black Mirror if it were written by a pretentious university student.
Payne has a fantastic premise in his back pocket. Downsizing gets its title and its first act from the idea of a new scientific discovery that could save the planet. It’s a process in which human beings can permanently shrink themselves in order to live in a world where waste is minimal, space is saved and, crucially for those who are not moved by high-minded ideals, money goes an awful lot further. Cash-strapped occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide the process could be good for them, after a discussion with Paul’s recently downsized friend (Jason Sudeikis).
It’s in this segment of Downsizing that the film really flies. The concept is interesting and delivered via some smart scripting, as well as nicely integrated visual effects. It’s a thoughtful idea and the bureaucracy surrounding the downsizing process itself is somewhere between the worlds of Terry Gilliam and Charlie Brooker. The film then briefly delves into a moral debate involving Wiig’s character that would be enough to carry a compelling and thought-provoking drama, but then it pulls off a jarring and troubling about-face, becoming a different film entirely.
In the downsized world, Paul befriends Serbian playboy Dušan (Christoph Waltz), who is simply a broad Eastern European caricature who describes himself as “sometimes a bit asshole”. He also bumps into Hong Chau‘s Lan Tran – a Vietnamese activist who was forcibly downsized by her government. Both of these characters are potentially interesting ideas, but they’re interesting ideas from completely different movies. Both are portrayed as broad stereotypes, with accents played for cheap comedy.
Under the influence of these two characters, Paul wanders off into a world of political activism and eco-adventure that is entirely at odds with everything Downsizing suggested in its first act. The film completely forgets about the intrigue of its central concept and, by the third act, it’s possible to forget that the characters’ primary characteristic used to be the fact they’re all five inches tall. Once Paul undergoes the process, there’s no real return to the ordinary-sized world, and this means the challenges and debates of the premise go unexamined, when they should be the meat of the story.
The tonal meandering of Payne’s film can be felt keenly in Matt Damon’s performance, which is almost saddening to watch. Damon doesn’t know where to look or what to do and, in an echo of his equally unusual work in Suburbicon, he feels like a rabbit trapped in the blinding headlights of a director who has lost control of his own vision. In shooting for scope over coherence, Payne blunders into deep water and is promptly swept away by the current. The result is a bloated and dull movie that knows what it wants to say initially but, like Donald Trump speaking to the press, has completely lost sight of the point by the end of its sentence.
Pop or Poop?
If you’re looking for examples of the biggest missed opportunities of the year so far, Downsizing is the best possible example. Alexander Payne has an enviable ensemble cast and a killer conceit, but he is unable to land any firm blows with his social commentary and he cannot decide whether he wants the funny bits to be funny. If his focus were the same size as his characters, he’d be in business.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.