Dan's Review: "Downsizing" a huge disappointment
Dec 21, 2017 08:35PM ● Published by Dan Metcalf
Hong Chau and Matt Damon in Downsizing - © 2017 Paramount.
Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Søren Pilmark.
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor.
Directed by Alexander Payne.
Alexander Payne has a long list of successful films, often drawing out great performances from talented actors and penning scripts that highlight meaningful (sometimes quirky) human relationships. He’s not much of an avant-garde auteur, sticking to contemporary settings and plausible family undercurrents instead of anything that might be considered “experimental.” Perhaps such expectations are in play as audiences consider Payne’s latest film Downsizing, and odd story with a puzzling dynamic.
Matt Damon stars as “everyman” Paul Safranek, a middle aged blue-collar guy married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig). The couple is stuck in a financial rut and seem to be headed nowhere fast when their old high school friend Dave (Jason Sudeikis) comes to town for a visit. Dave is only 5 inches tall, having gone through the “downsizing” process, a miraculous scientific discovery intended to minimize mankind’s impact on the environment. The process was discovered by Norwegian scientists who hope to thwart the effects of global warming by minimizing mankind’s dependence on the Earth’s resources. The main benefit of downsizing is that you can live off much less money, so Paul and Audrey decide to liquidate their assets and cash in as 5-inch tall millionaires in a “downsized” luxury community. When they arrive at the miniaturizing facility adjacent to their new tiny community, Paul gladly goes through the process, expecting to see his wife on the other side. When he awakens, he discovers that Audrey had cold feet and stayed full size, thus ending their marriage. Flashing forward another year, and the now divorced Paul is forced to work another blue-collar job while living in more common accommodations, since Audrey pretty much took most of the money that would have financed his small luxury status. Paul’s upstairs penthouse neighbor Dusan (Chritoph Waltz), an aging playboy who continually holds wild parties, making life even more frustrating. Paul eventually joins one of Dusan’s parties and freaks on psychedelic drugs. When he awakens, he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) one of Dusan’s cleaning women. Ngoc is a former activist who was imprisoned, shrunk against her will and sent to the U.S. in a box from the Far East. Ngoc was the sole survivor in the journey, having lost her leg in the process, creating short media attention. Paul (whose job in the “big” world was occupational therapy) offers to help Ngoc adjust her prosthetic leg and show her how to take better care of her body. The story gets a little weird from this point, as Paul discovers the outcast “little people” who live just beyond the luxurious community. When one of Dusan’s friends (who is also one of the Norwegian scientists who discovered the shrinking process) learns that his housemaid is the famous activist, Ngoc is invited to tag along on a journey to a deliver supplies to a scientific community in Norway. Along the way, Paul and Ngoc fall in love. When they arrive in Norway, they learn that the Norwegian scientists have formed a commune and have been tunneling into a mountainside, creating a refuge from the outside world. The scientists have learned that the effects of global warming are worse than everybody thought, and that the world will end within a few years. They invite Paul and Ngoc to come with them to their bunker to survive. Paul agrees, but Ngoc does not want to leave the world behind. Paul must choose survival or love.
Yeah, like I said: weird.
There isn’t much to like about Downsizing, as its tone is often puzzling. The movie is schizophrenic; it can be a dark comedy, a romance or an environmental satire all at once. The running gags of real-world “big” items showing up in the “small” world seem more like an opportunity to showcase large props, because that’s funny, right? Eh…no, it isn’t. It’s just odd.
The heavy-handed doomsday global warming inevitability in Downsizing also makes light of real-word issues, and once again sets up an impossible scenario. I’ve said it before: If you really believe global warming is a thing, stop making movies that produce trivialized outcomes. More people will believe in actual compromise and solutions if you stop overreaching.
The only bright spot in Downsizing is Hong Chau, who gives a spectacular performance in a role that is commonly given to any number of “A” list actors. Chau does a fantastic job of creating a character that is fresh, honest, sympathetic, tough and likeable. Waltz’s presence is a wasted experience, along with several other cameo appearances.
As for the rest of Downsizing, it’s a genuine disappointment for the likes of a filmmaker like Alexander Payne. He’s been a master of drawing great lead characters among outstanding ensembles (Election, About Schmidt, Nebraska), but Downsizing feels more like a Matt Damon miniature gag film. It’s a frustrating movie experience, and we can only hope that Payne thinks a little bigger next time.