DIR: Alexander Payne • WRI: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor • PRO: Jim Burke, Megan Ellison, Mark Johnson, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor • DOP: Phedon Papamichael • ED: Kevin Tent • MUS: Rolfe Kent • DES: Stefania Cella • CAST: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau
It’s always frustrating when films start off promising but lose their way as they progress. Such is the case with the dramedy Downsizing, the latest from acclaimed writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska). Matt Damon stars as Paul, a working class middle-aged man whose life is stuck in a rut. However, when Norwegian scientists discover how to shrink people, he thinks becoming ‘downsized’ will give he and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), a new lease on life. Not only could it help solve the world’s over-population problem, the government to promote the scheme ensure that one’s money goes further in communities for the small. Paul and Audrey’s $150,000 becomes $12 million in the miniature gated community, Leisure Land. Yet, when Audrey decides post-Paul’s shrinkage to not undergo the irreversible process, our protagonist is left alone and five inches tall. While in Leisure Land, a depressed Paul comes to realise that the seemingly idyllic miniature society may just be as flawed as the real world.
To its credit, the first two-thirds of Downsizing are impressive. The central concept is refreshingly unique. Payne, along with co-writer Jim Taylor, seems like he has put a lot of effort into creating the world both visually and story-wise. The mix of Michael Gondry-esque in camera-effects with sparing CGI looks delightful. Meanwhile, the themes regarding how humans often corrupt inventions originally developed for the betterment of society (e.g. dynamite) resonate. Downsizing was invented with the goal to protect the world’s resources, to help reduce pollution and stop global warming. Yet, it is not long before dictators shrink dissidents, fears of tiny immigrants and terrorists infiltrating US borders emerge and racism between those tall and small becomes an issue. That’s not even mentioning people like Dusan (Christoph Waltz in perhaps his best performance outside of a Tarantino movie), Paul’s decadent neighbour in Leisure Land. Along with his friend (Udo Kier, also fantastic), Dusan profits from shrinking and smuggling contraband goods into the miniature community.
However, just as Payne seems to be about to sink his teeth into this story destined to be a scathing satire (sort of High Rise meets Ant-Man), he loses his nerve. As Paul becomes friends with Lan Chan (Hong Chau, Inherent Vice – bringing vibrancy and energy to what could be a racial stereotype), a Vietnamese political activist jailed and downsized against her will, Downsizing devolves into an oddly earnest tale about a white middle-aged man reminded to care for others by a kind outsider inexplicably attracted to him. Not only does this feel cliched but Paul is so passive and dull. Although Damon is solid, his protagonist gets lost in the narrative, only acting in response to the actions of the far more charismatic players inhabited by Chau, Kier and Waltz. Placing either of these three characters as a lead would improve the film substantially.
By the time the final act – involving an utterly pointless excursion to Norway – rolls around, one is left wondering if Payne simply could not handle such an ambitious sci-fi premise. There are reports that the director struggled with the editing process, excising a narration by Damon’s Paul (perhaps its inclusion may have made the protagonist feel less like a spectator). These behind-the-scenes issues show in the film as characters such as Wiig’s or Jason Sudeikis’ friend to Paul just disappear from the movie.
Downsizing traverses the globe and analyses the fate of humanity. Yet while the film’s scope originally seems in keeping with this, as it continues one realises it is just another movie about a sad sack middle-aged American by the writer-director. That’s not a critique of Payne’s other work (Sideways is wonderful), but with a premise this ingenious, one wishes Downsizing as a whole was too.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Downsizing is released 19th January 2018