Alexander Payne’s Downsizing looked like a promising film when it premiered at Venice in September 2017. It had an interesting “What if” premise about shrinking the world's population down. Unfortunately, this premise is barely touched on and ditched within thirty minutes, leaving us with 110 minutes of a boring Matt Damon being enlightened the most annoying way possible. Downsizing wants to be many different things, but it couldn’t even do the most important thing right: be interesting.
Set in the modern day, the film follows Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as Paul and Audrey Safranek. They’re a middle-class couple that needs something new to happen in their lives. News breaks out of a Swedish procedure called “Downsizing” that shrinks people down to 5” tall. The purpose of the procedure is to eliminate human waste on the planet and protect the environment. Paul goes for the experiment, not for the environment, but for the luxury small people live in since everything costs so little. Audrey backs out in fear, leaving Paul to fend for himself in a new world.
Based on the description I just gave, the film sounds pretty interesting to watch and think about. But, like I said before, the shrunken people story is only central in the first half hour. After that, we get bombarded with themes of environmentalism and materialism. Now we have a film that is trying to send multiple messages at once. None of them mesh together well as the writers, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, have each fight the other to see who becomes the main theme.
The film also suffers from being slow and boring. It takes close to forty-five minutes for Matt Damon to be shrunk, and then another half hour as we are given a middling tour of small America. Payne, the director as well, also takes too long to introduce our unspecial supporting characters. Christoph Waltz appears as Dusan Mirkovic, a Frenchman who shrunk himself to live the high life of partying and women. Hong Chau appears as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese cleaning lady for Dusan who shrunk to escape the tyranny going on in her home country.
This felt like Alexander Payne trying to give society a lesson on selfishness. Payne has subplots that indulge in helping the less privileged, protecting the environment for the future, and being happy with what we have. It’s very preachy and by the end of it, I just wanted it to stop, mostly because nothing about it was interesting or original.
Aligning with the same quality of the rest of the film is the actors. Everyone except Hong Chau gives lackluster performances. Matt Damon is the least compelling as the “Everyman” character as we watch the film from his point of view. Paul is a boring and self-centered man that carries no interesting or desirable traits. About every other side character is more interesting to watch than him, and about every other actor does a better job than Damon.
I’m not saying that Christoph Waltz or Kristen Wiig did a good job because they didn’t, I’m saying they did a less poor job. Waltz does his usual gimmick of being the eccentric European who talks a little differently. He’s done it countless times and its worked wonders before, but here it’s unwelcome and annoying. Wiig gets caught playing too straight here as her comedic capabilities are left untapped.
The one decent thing you can pick from this film is Hong Chau. She’s bold in her role and steals the show from Damon, who she’s constantly paired up with. Her character is a saint to the less fortunate shrunken people, bringing them food and tending to their physical ailments.
I would like to congratulate the marketing team behind Downsizing for selling this film to me so well. If they had shown me snapshots from the entire film, I would have never seen it. I was baited and switched, but only after I had given them my money. The good thing is most people didn’t fall into the same trap I did since this film only made $54 million worldwide on a $68 million budget.