Movie Review: “Downsizing”

There is a genius of an idea within “Downsizing,” the new movie from Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants”), which he directs and wrote with Jim Taylor.   Starring Matt Damon and Hong Chau, this is the tale of people who have been—either by choice or force—shrunk to just a few inches tall. We get to see the communities in which they live, how those communities function, and the ramifications of living such a life (both good and bad).

The way in which the actual downsizing—the term used for the medical procedure which shrinks people—occurs is beautifully clever in its execution. The establishment of the community and explanation of how money goes further in such a community is equally well-conceived. Watching these parts of the movie, where the ins-and-outs of the process, and life, are discussed, is great. It is thoughtful and funny, as are the discussions people have around downsizing, both those who have done it and those who have not.

Where the entire movie goes off the rails, and it does go off the rails, is in what happens to Matt Damon’s Paul Safranek once he undergoes the process. After he and the audience become acclimatized to the new world, the story abruptly undergoes a shift – it is no longer about downsizing and rather about the hidden impoverished communities all around us (the clear extrapolation is that these are ills which exist in the larger world and have come to the smaller as well). Then, just as abruptly, the movie shifts again and becomes about the potential end of humanity. Some of these things may be baked into the original notion of downsizing and why it’s being done (to help save the planet) earlier on, but they are not the main plot… until they are.

Or perhaps, one simply doesn’t know what movie they’re actually watching until the plot shifts. If this is the case, it is all too well disguised and does itself no favors.

Just as bad as this shift is the presence of Damon’s character experiencing it. Earlier this year we were treated to Matt Damon saving China and the world in “The Great Wall,” and now here he is, playing an occupational therapist who has the mission of serving the underprivileged thrust upon him.   It is, seemingly, only Paul Safranek who can help this group. From his tiny community it is, seemingly, only Paul Safranek who is worthy of surviving an impending apocalypse. Yet, Paul Safranek is no different than you or I or anyone else.

Well, he’s no different I am. There is no particular reason for him to be chosen, except maybe if one wishes to argue that within the film’s world it is white middle class men in general who are worthy. And that is certainly a very plausible, and distressing, reading of “Downsizing.”

Although I have mentioned this impending end of mankind a couple of times now in this review, and it is certainly a plot point in the film, I would be hard-pressed to tell you why it is going to occur or when. This is because Payne and company choose to not offer any such details. In fact, they choose, quite purposefully, to make the entirety of it ambiguous. And, while it may be ambiguous, that doesn’t stop a group of people from leaving their lives to avoid it.

Why then does any of this occur?

The easiest answer one will get walking away from the film is that it happens so that Paul Safranek can learn a lesson about life and what’s important. People change their world and suffer and die in this film so that Paul Safranek can grow as a human being (I will direct your attention here to that paragraph above about reading the film as discussing the worth of white middle-class men).

On the plus side, Hong Chau gives a good performance in the film as a Vietnamese dissident, and Christoph Waltz is enjoyable as Safranek’s neighbor and a smuggler. Kristen Wiig as Paul’s wife, Audrey, has a realistic, fascinating reaction to the entire notion of downsizing, but the movie too quickly moves away from it and towards Paul’s experiences. Yet, beyond his initial questioning of the downsizing process alongside Audrey, Damon’s Safranek is too bland and too put-upon to be engrossing.

Walking out of the film there are simply too many unimportant questions on one’s mind, from why the story would unfold in such a fashion to why characters would make some of the choices they do. These are not the questions one should be asking, but they will still be at the fore of some minds anyway.

In the final summation, there is certainly clever to be had in “Downsizing.” Some of the details about the changes/difficulties with being so small are beautifully rendered (like a full-size rose in comparison to the shrunken people). As stated, the community for downsized people and the procedure itself are nicely illustrated. However, there isn’t much left after that to be enjoyed and the film runs more than two hours (insert your own downsizing joke here).

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photo credit: Paramount Pictures

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