Downsizing Comes Up Short With Its Ambitions (Review)

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When trailers first started coming out for Alexander Payne’s latest film, I was definitely intrigued by its premise.  The idea of humans opting for a medical procedure that shrinks them down to four inches tall seemed like a possibility for great satire and comedy.  The cast looked impressive, and Payne’s previous films have been great.  Unfortunately, Downsizing is absolutely nothing like the trailer. All the funny bits were shown in marketing, if they even made the final cut of the movie.  The finished product is too tonally and thematically inconsistent to be good, and the story gets weighed down by its force fed and heavy handed message.

downsizing movie poster

Paul Safranek undergoes a life changing procedure to be shrunk down to four inches tall so that he and his wife may simultaneously save the planet and afford the extravagant lifestyle they have always wanted.

Downsizing is a film that had a ton of potential, but absolutely botched the execution.  The premise of a society of people shrinking themselves to four inches tall is rife with possibilities.The plot begins with Matt Damon’s Paul working as an occupational therapist when the first downsizing procedure is done.  Cut to ten years later, and it’s become a mainstream habit.  3% of the world’s population has downsized.  There are extravagant small communities popping up all over the world. After talking with a former classmate who went and got small, Paul and his wife decide to do it for themselves.  They say their goodbyes to their friends and families, and set off for their new downsized life.

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This is where the movie immediately took a turn for me.  During the first twenty minutes, I was interested in the premise.  Everything was filmed with the perspective of the big looking down on the small.  The conversation between Paul and Jason Sudekis’ one off character had some fun play with the over the shoulder shots.  Once Matt Damon gets small himself, the film loses all sense of wonder.  After a very dramatic moment is when Paul explores the tiny world for the first time.  Instead of being overcome with the spectacle of the world, the scene was underscored with a tone of sadness.  This is a huge red flag of how the rest of the film is going to be.

Another year passes, Paul adjusts to his new tiny life.  From this point, it is easy to forget everyone is four inches tall until someone directly addresses it.  Everything in the tiny communities is to scale, so it just feels like a normal life.  Instead of being a quirky social commentary utilizing the difference between small and big people, the film takes a turn into something awful.  As we follow the story of Paul, it becomes abundantly clear this is just another movie about a sad white guy facing a mid life crisis.  This comes with all the clichés off that type of story.  Paul experiments with drugs.  There is an over the top party scene.  He takes a job that’s beneath his education and training level.  He makes friends with a social outcast, “man-of-the-world” type character.  He falls in love with someone completely different from himself.  This would almost be excusable if the movie wasn’t trying to cram it’s environmentally conscious messages down the audience’s throat at the same time.

The film tries to utilize it’s gimmick to hit home a message.  The draw of downsizing yourself is to leave less of a carbon footprint on the world, as you would require significantly less resources to survive.  This makes sense, but once the film reaches the second act this idea is not explored as heavily as it was during the first.  We spend too much time with Paul and his sad white guy shenanigans that film has to introduce characters to exclaim “the world is in danger and it is far too late for us to do anything”.  The few moments in the film where we are able to witness how big the world is are completely overshadow by a line of dialogue detailing just how much we’ve screwed the world.  This message would have been delivered much better if it was consistent throughout the film and wasn’t so overshadow by the weak plot.

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The cast seems pretty stellar at first glance, but no film this year has misused an ensemble more so than Downsizing. Matt Damon can play two characters, suburban white guy or Jason Bourne.  He plays the former here and he is as vanilla as ever.  One would think the pairing of Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig would be ideal for a quirky couple, but Wiig leaves the film as quickly as she enters.  This is the biggest waste of Academy Award Winner Christoph Waltz on screen ever.  His sheer on screen talent is reduced to a bad accent and bizarre character motivations that his presence almost becomes annoying on screen.  Hong Chau (Inherent Vice, Big Little Lies) has been talked about pretty heavily for awards for her performance as the Vietnamese blue collar worker Ngoc Lan Tran, but honestly I do not see it.  I thought we as a culture had moved past the antics of a broken english accent being funny.

As the medical procedure of downsizing is offered worldwide, its expected that this communities will have a diverse wealth of people from all walks of life.  The original small colony was founded in Norway.  Every foreign accent in this film feels like a bad impression of said accent.  The jokes about all these cultures intertwining in the small world are completely lost amongst the bad delivery and atrocious accents.  It’s unfortunate that the world of the film is seen through the lens of an average white guy, so everything feels like a bad characterization of different cultures instead of a genuine integration into this new world.

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There is a good film hidden somewhere amongst the inconsistencies.  Early on in the movie, there is a forgettable drunk who rants about the burden small people place on the rest of the world.  Big people still have to produce the same amount of resources, but small people only pay for a fraction of it.  Big and small people do not engage in the economy the same way, so this drunk feels small people should not have the same rights as big people.  This could have lended itself to commentary on disenfranchised people, socioeconomic differences, and so on.  Hell, if Payne wanted to keep with the environmental message he could have utilized the big and small dynamic as a metaphor for choosing a green lifestyle in an oil-based economy. Alas, all the commentary this movie offers is gloom ridden dialogue about the fate or the world and some bad impressions of foreign cultures.

Downsizing is pretty evenly divided amongst critics.  Some love it, and some feel the way I do.  I am genuinely surprised by the amount of people that love this film.  I had high hopes for this given how interesting of a idea it was, and I loved Payne’s film Nebraska.  Between the plain acting, wasted talent, and too “on the nose” preachy message the film is inconsistent as a whole.
Of all the films being talked about for awards season, this is the one that does not belong in the conversation.

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