Alexander Payne’s latest is a sci-fi comic drama about a man named Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) who decides to engage in the biggest scientific innovation since the Apollo space program: Downsizing.
Downsizing, or “going small,” is the process of shrinking one’s body down to five inches and moving to one of many small communities, a “magical” place where everything is cheaper because the quantity the consumer requires is smaller (although, economy isn’t all about quantity…if there’s a demand for small diamonds, wouldn’t the price of small diamonds go up regardless? But I digress).
Downsizing has a sprawling plot. For a film about shrinking a person and putting them under a glass dome, there is a lot of movement. Too much, to be frank. The first act of the film is firmly planted in the relationship between Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) as they decide to downsize. With the swift, only fleetingly comedic exit of one character, the film shifts into an entirely new world in the next act. We here follow Paul as he struggles to find satisfaction in his lonely shrunken world, finally ending up at a party in the lavish apartment of Dusan (Christoph Waltz).
The morning after, Paul meets one of Dusan’s cleaners, a Vietnamese dissident who was put in prison and forced into downsizing. Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) is who we will follow in act three, with Paul in tow endlessly fascinated by her story. In the fourth act, we’re in Norway.
The film grapples with far too much than it knows what to do with. Each wildly different act stands on its own. Each has pieces of intrigue that make this science fiction world more enticing and fulfilling. The idea of political opposition to downsizing, introduced by a drunken bar patron. The reveal that just outside the walls of the idyllic “Leisure Town” is a ghettoized small community for the sick and impoverished. These are fascinating bits of knowledge that give the world of Downsizing a life of its own.
But these are mere bits in a plot that introduces many aspects and characters in hopes that enough will stick out and make the film appear as a grandiose social statement. In actuality, the A-plot story arc is unilaterally basic and features an audience surrogate protagonist who is unforgivably bland. There is nothing remarkable about the performance of Damon, nor Waltz for that matter.
Then there is the performance of Chau. Her character has the most depth of any in the film, and Chau has moments of surprising pathos. In other moments, her broken English accent reads overly stereotypical and is even used as the butt of a joke in at lease one instance.
Downsizing is inventive in premise, and it is clear that Payne wants to do a lot with such novelty. By the end of the film, however, we are treading so deep into the muck of traditional story-telling tropes that any good will the initial premise set up is no longer visible.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)