5.5 out of 10
Matt Damon as Paul Safranek
Directed by Alexander Payne
Alexander Payne is no lightweight. He’s made at least two legitimate classics (for those interested, those two would be Election and Sideways), and any new work by him should always be something audiences should take interest in. Payne is a filmmaker who seems interested in the inner workings of people, and how we allow our ambitions and how others perceive us to override our better natures. Election is a rich satire of politics and popularity, and Sideways is about a man who must overcome his own self-image to have meaningful and rewarding relationships. There is a lot of metaphor packed into those films, but they can also be enjoyed on other, simpler levels.
Which makes it difficult to write that Downsizing doesn’t work on almost any level, and certainly not as metaphor. Its heart is in the right place, but that isn’t enough if your message is all over the place. Is Downsizing a study of the haves versus the have nots? An examination of humanity’s wanton destruction of the planet? An exploration of race? All these things at once? Payne has seemingly picked a weak vessel to hold all of this, and while the film works in moments, as a whole it is very scattershot and unfocused. It can’t even land well when it comes to the jokes. If Payne had picked one theme and stuck with it, Downsizing might have been able to pull it off. Perhaps its ambition was simply too big, for lack of a better word, for the movie to handle. Downsizing is certainly wide in scope, but it can’t seem to zoom in on what matters – strong characters and a resonant meaning. Yes, things are bad. Yes, we need to look out for each other. Yes, the environment needs attention. Yes, the economy isn’t fair. And? If you’re going to tell us a fable about these things — and make no mistake, this is a fable — you better get to the point in a meaningful way. Downsizing does not.
The story, such as it is, focuses on a scientific breakthrough that can shrink humans to less 5% of our original size. With humanity being smaller, that means the resources we use will be that much less. At first, people jump on it as the trendy thing to do, and communities are built to house the small that are like miniature utopias. For Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), this means he can help the planet while sacrificing almost nothing, and he and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) sign up for the process.
But Audrey has second thoughts, leaving Paul alone in a new landscape. Paul makes new friends, such as Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and Konrad (Udo Kier), but it is a lonely, unfulfilling life, until he meets Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident shrunk against her will and who escapes to America. She gives him a life with purpose, but even tough Paul is smaller, the world is still that much bigger, and he may not be able to escape what lies ahead for the planet.
On paper, Downsizing reads like another rich satire, but Payne can’t keep the tone consistent. Are we supposed to laugh at Paul’s plight? Sympathize? Is he a surrogate for the rest of us, or something we are supposed to disdain? Neither Payne or Damon make it clear. Sometimes the metaphor is too hamfisted to work, such as a conversation about smaller people’s voting rights, or how even in communities of like-minded people there can be fissures and rifts, and sometimes there are interesting ideas that Payne doesn’t seem to want to explore. There is a lot of ideas in Downsizing, but none of them are given serious weight.
There is one great performance in the film that works almost in spite of itself, and that is the work of Hong Chau as the dissident Ngoc Lan Tran. The script requires her to talk in Vietnamese caricature, but you can see the amazing, heartfelt character underneath. Ngoc Lan does good work, even with only one leg, because that is what is required of her, with no complaint and no self pity. Ngoc Lan’s life is a horror tale, but she does not let it stop her, and Hong Chau fills her with real dignity and respect. I’m not sure what the intention of Payne was when this character was written, but they do it a disservice to have her speak in broken English when the character is obviously smart and full of spirit. Perhaps that was the point, but it’s done in such a heavy way that I’m not sure that screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor were very aware of what they were doing. It doesn’t matter, because Hong Chau is such a bright presence in an otherwise paint-by-numbers movie.
There are certainly great satires that are able to poke fun at the world without being so obvious about it and are still able to tell a cohesive story. Hell, Alexander Payne already made one of the great ones. While Downsizing is visually interesting, and has real heart behind it, it cannot stick the landing. It is unsure of what it wants to say, or it is taking so much time patting itself on the back for being such an important movie that it ceases to be, you know, an important movie. Downsizing is like a lot of progressives these days (of which I count myself as one) – too busy sunning itself on the glow of good intentions that it doesn’t realize that it’s just sitting there doing nothing.