IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 135 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the near future, Paul and Audrey Safranek are a married couple in Omaha with financial issues. At a college reunion, they encounter Dave and Carol Johnson who have “downsized,” an irreversible process invented 15 years earlier that involves shrinking humans to a height of five inches. Convinced that it’s both environmentally friendly and life improving because the value of their money will increase, Paul undergoes the procedure and moves to a community for small people, but Audrey doesn’t go through with it and the couple divorce. Paul soon begins to regret downsizing….
A film that has a great concept but does so little with it that the second half could have easily been rewritten with only a few minor changes to have our main characters fully sized instead of 5 inches tall, and full of messaging about things like the environment, the rich/poor divide and how you can’t change human nature yet sometimes curiously confused about what it’s actually trying to say, Downsizing represents writer/director Alexander Payne’s first real misfire. Every now and again you get some reminders of the sensitivity, the naturalness and the gift for character that makes the likes of Sideways and The Descendants such joys to watch, and there are a few genuine laughs scattered here and there, but “an epic masterpiece”, which is what Payne has called it, it certainly is not. Payne has also referred to it as “a large canvas, science-fiction social satire”, but it often just seems like he’s using it as an excuse to stuff in every concern that bugging him, from global warming to white privilege to mass consumption. These may be important issues, but a story about making people very small has so much potential that just isn’t capitalised on here.
So we have these Norwegian scientists who have discovered how to shrink people and soon several communities of folk who’ve undergone downsizing spring up, because they now have less of a carbon footprint and consume less. Makes sense in a way. Enter our typical married couple who are having money problems. Paul’s friend Dave sits perched on a box of cookies on the kitchen counter, telling Paul how great it is to live a life of leisure with no financial worries. Paul and Audrey decide to go for it, applying for a spot at Leisureland, a downsized community in New Mexico, hyped up to hopeful applicants with a promotional video starring married couple Jeff and Laura Lonowski (Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern in amusing cameos], both wearing ear-mikes, doing forced marital “banter” in their dollhouse about how awesome life is once you go small. The downsizing process is shown in intriguing detail and some logic has been applied, such as the way all body hair and gold teeth [otherwise the head would explore during the process] have to be removed. Sadly Paul awakes in Leisureland without his wife who’s changed her mind at the last minute, and that’s all you see of Kristen Wiig despite being third billed.
One year later, Paul, despite having anticipated a life of ease, is working as a telemarketer, is dumped by his new girlfriend and is regretting downsizing in a variant on the usual Payne male lead character who’s going through a mid life crisis. Unfortunately it’s hard to be engaged because Paul is very thinly written and Matt Damon, struggling with barely having a character to play, gives probably the blandest performance he’s ever given. Thank goodness then that Dusan and Ngoc Lan Tran soon turn up. Dusan is a black market dealer who lives in the apartment immediately above Paul’s and likes to have noisy parties. Christoph Waltz is basically playing the goofy, eccentric character he usually plays, but at least he’s entertaining to watch. Paul attends one of his parties and ends up having a whale of a time on ecstacy in a fun but largely pointless diversion. And then there’s Lan Tran, a Vietnamese political activist who was imprisoned and downsized against her will. The sole survivor of a human smuggling attempt to the United States, she had a leg amputated on arrival and now works as a cleaner. Hong Chau is thoroughly delightful as the pidgeon English speaking, comically bossy Lan Tran and provides the funniest moments of the film, such as when she convinces Paul and Dusan to take her to Norway to meet Dr. Jordan Asbjornsen, though the script makes a serious mistake by introducing her stealing painkillers, giving her roommate too many of them so she dies from an overdose, and never thanking Paul for his considerable help.
Attempting to assist Lan Tran with her prosthetic leg, Paul returns to her house in the slums outside of the walls of Leisureland, realising that the concept of the “haves” and the “have nots” is as alive and well in Leisureland as it is anywhere else. Paul has tried to escape from a big scary world and finds that he’s more or less in the same spot, human nature being essentially the same. It’s an important point, but you can easily tell that story without shrinking everyone, a concept which is almost forgotten about in large stretches of the second half. Of course Paul and Lan Tran get closer, and then the trip to Norway reveals a large group of people who want to go and live underground because the world is doomed. Unfortunately, Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor seem [or at least this is how it appeared to me] to be telling us that it’s best to avoid such progressive ideas and just wait for the end of the planet, but that this isn’t too bad as long as long as you give to the poor. Right, okay then. And, while it’s always nice to see a story about someone who becomes a nicer, kinder person, Paul seemed like a pretty decent, if uninteresting, guy even at the beginning. His journey is really quite minimal. The final scene fails to communicate the idea that he now has a purpose because it shows Paul doing something he was also doing earlier, and I was more convinced of the idea that once a doormat, always a doormat.
Downsizing‘s heart is certainly in the right place, and will sometimes make you think about the issues it talks about, but the narrative is rather clunky, tending to jump from topic to topic without finishing anything. The whole thing seriously needed some rewriting. The downsizing aspect is presented with seamless visual effects and the odd good gag, but as the film progresses one wonders what the point of including it is. Paul hardly ever even interacts with anything or anyone big. On the evidence of this, Payne just isn’t good at fantastical tales and one wonders what somebody like Charlie Kaufman or even Wes Anderson would have done with this, though I will say that Downsizing is probably Payne’s most visually appealing work. The Norway scenes are especially evocatively photographed by Phedon Papamichael, especially a scene when the people who are about to go underground are enjoying and celebrating the last sunset they will ever see. It’s beautiful and the whole scene has the clarity of emotion and soul which is mostly lacking elsewhere in the film except in some of Chau’s scenes.
Downsizing is hard to totally dislike, but it is frustrating. I, for example, wanted to find out more about these miniature towns and the effect that an increasing portion of the world’s population choosing to go small and hide away in remote parts of the planet has on the rest of the world. But it’s not interested in exploring its original premise, it’s more interested in preaching. I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again: I have no problem with Hollywood going on about things like the environment which I also consider to be an important subject, but I dislike being lectured to all throughout a movie, being hit over the head, being made to feel you’re in school. Just a few reminders here and there are enough and don’t run the risk of getting people’s backs up, but then today’s Hollywood is Preach Central. Downsizing is a film with some good individual moments and performances [none other than Udo Keir appears in a fairly major role and you even get to see him dance], but it’s also a film that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going and when it does finally arrive at its destination you may wonder what the point of it all was.