REVIEW – “Downsizing” Thinks Really Big, Perhaps Too Big for its Thematic Britches

by Joe Hammerschmidt

Over a span of two decades, writer-director Alexander Payne has shown a flair for exposing niche circuits of humanity at its highest extremes; Nebraska to the elderly, Sideways to the struggling artists and oenophiles, The Descendants to families unfamiliar with the system of grief, Election to the politically advantageous. And now, reunited with writing partner Jim Taylor, for the environmentally optimistic, and I suppose the broadly optimistic about the solution to extinction, Downsizing. Opposed to his past films, what sets it apart is what causes its greatest quarrel: it’s too far detached from reality, operating like perhaps the greatest Twilight Zone episode ever, only stretched to feature-length. Had it been condensed, by at least 30 minutes, it may not have felt as sluggish. As it appears presently, Downsizing is a lively mix of optimistic excitement toward an unexpected future with some oddly appropriate humor, that descends into a mundane and nearly depressing cross-exam of the epidemic of overpopulation. I can agree, that may be an issue that we as humans should pay more attention to; it’s just this film doesn’t make the best case for it, and it’s not like it’s the only one who gets it wrong. Still, plenty of room to keep trying.

Scientific experts in Norway believe they had found the solution for a crowded Earth: by shrinking the present population down and developing communities for this reduced-mass populations. Occupational-therapist-by-trade Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his devoted wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) eventually take on the risks and consequences of shrinking down, giving up their overstressed lives in Omaha for a smaller, simpler, less financially dependent existence. And the promise of a better life leaves Paul incredibly excite until he finds Audrey backed out at the last second, with a divorce looming soon after. Unfortunately, this really is where the film suffers a dramatic disconnect from which it doesn’t return.

Aware the shrinking process cannot be reversed, Paul struggles to recapture the meaning in his life as a bachelor, one of the only depressed males in the otherwise idyllic community of Leisureland. At least, until a recent quarrel with his upstairs neighbor and aging party guy Dusan (Christoph Waltz, with an almost unrecognizable French accent) leads him to an introductory encounter with an accidental hero of the downsizing movement. Paul experiences his world opening up far wider, as much as the film is aiming for (too far) after befriending Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), lending to a short adventure by which Paul aims for that heightened clarity he was missing. His attempts to regain it, by the point we discover the outcome, is rather lost to the viewer.

We see this Leisureland as the perfect, polished, self-promotional answer to a severe epidemic, the themes of which clash with each other as poorly as one could expect. A nearly unethical, and painfully commercialist approach to a real-world problem that could easily turn society upside down, given the chance. There is plenty of that darkness afoot, just interjected by humor at the worst possible times, furthering that severe break in the chain. Payne and Taylor are essentially combining two films into one, with Damon indecisive over which side he’s more involved in: the domestic comedy side that may have fared better with he and Wiig still husband and wife, later unwrapping a dark secret behind their new home (think The ‘Burbs), a fragment of that still present in the final product; or the George Bailey/Walter Mitty everyman side where he’s no less determined to seek his true purpose in life, knowing the clock is ticking. Poor Matt cannot make up his mind here, and multitasking two separate dynamics in the same character, as this film shows, isn’t exactly his best trait, with much of his final minutes on screen hitting borderline corny territory.

Meanwhile, Miss Chau, the Thai-born actress most recently seen on Big Little Lies, is more deserving of her Golden Globe nomination as the mistakable guardian angel in Paul’s life, a catalyst for reawakening his romantic and perhaps spiritual embers as his hopefulness increases. Yes, despite a stereotypical accent that reaches unnecessary points, Chau delivers the most satisfying performance in the whole firm, out-acting Damon, and Waltz, who by comparison, is rather underused, in that meager stock character way where it’s memorable enough, just not that it could overshadow a more legendary effort. Even a small, yet sturdy cameo from the great Udo Kier as one of the original supporters of the downsizing movement couldn’t compare to Chau, who perhaps saves the movie with a wayward grace and determination, much like Damon inadvertently weighs it down through his indecisive griping.

I wanted to enjoy Downsizing so much, aware of how blissfully I had connected with Payne’s smaller attempts at capturing human snapshots with an expertist intent. Unfortunately, the expectations were set too high, the script was stretched too thin, and the morals were too far off-course, and nearly confusing at times, with a rather sudden ending that may leave viewers desiring a better conclusion. It almost blindly sets up a sequel without any subtlety, and suffice to say it may not quite deserve one. But it can at least say it starts out strong, as one man’s journey turns into the goal of a single species, to own up to their mistakes, by perhaps lowering one’s societal expectations down when one’s mass shrinks to just three inches. Payne and Taylor miss the target by mere inches, aiming for the clouds in giving us a lesson in one’s personal enrichment, when really, it’s better to go small and aim for the ground. Recommended for the true Payne fans, and anyone eager to try out a new spin on sci-fi satire, impossible as it may appear. (C)

Downsizing opens at most area theaters this weekend; rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, and drug use; 135 minutes.