Starring: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau
Director: Alexander Payne
Running Time: 135 mins
Synopsis: Norwegian scientists have developed the technology to shrink people down to 5 inches in hopes that it will save the pressures overpopulation has put on the planet. Paul (Damon) and his wife Audrey (Wiig) decide to abandon their stressful financially strapped lives and have the procedure. A decision that triggers a life changing adventure.
Downsizing is certainly a work made of some disparate elements. One part Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, sliced with dollops of Hangover style frat boy comedy, intermingled with An Inconvenient Truth style sermonising. All this wrapped too with director Alexander Payne’s (The Descendants) trademark familial drama. The fact that most of it works is testament to the tonal skills of Payne and fellow scriptwriter Jim Taylor. Opening with a setting the scene sequence that is akin to something Wes Anderson might produce (an influence that is felt at other times throughout), as Norwegian scientists discover a technique of being able to miniaturise anything, in a desperate attempt to stage off the threats overpopulation is causing to our planet. Although the science is high fantasy Payne shoots it with a focus and detail that helps you to swallow it, whilst never forgetting the sheer silliness the concept provides. That Wes Anderson affinity for off-kilter characters and fast paced whimsy coming to the fore.
We then leap forward a number of years, the story shrinking (sorry) to a tighter frame regarding Paul and his wife Audrey. Small-town people with little in the way of big dreams, juxtaposed with the huge flights of fantasy of those crazy scientists, other than to own their own house. Paul, like most Payne protagonists, is a mumblecore sort. Content with his day to day activities, whilst a small part of him yearns for deeper meaning to the whole ‘life’ thing. Audrey on the other hand has no such lofty ambitions, with even the notion of taking the ‘downsizing’ procedure only a means to exorcise themselves from their financial mire. Due to the sheer size of everything in the downsizing community, your small savings in the big world are worth tenfold when a house is only 7cm tall. Opting to take the procedure, helped along by the encouraging words of Jason Sudekis’s school friend who has seen his life dramatically improve through shrinking. A procedure Payne shows in stellar detail, from having to remove all hair from their bodies, to the painful removal of any metal in their teeth, it is both hilarious and deeply fascinating. His camera gliding through cleanly organised production line style rooms heightening the sheer surrealness of everything (a move once again routinely employed by Wes Anderson).
Upon awakening Paul realises that Audrey has chickened out, a selfish side revealing itself that Wiig ably plays with humour, vulnerability and a harsh honesty. It is an odd decision on Payne’s part though, as the audience’s introduction and absorption into this strange new world is shone through the depressed lens of Paul’s loneliness. Clearly Payne is trying to say that no grand procedure can overcome the problems and issues with ourselves or our relationships. All well and good but it cuts short the bouncy forward movement that marks the first half out. Fortunately help is at hand from Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier as Paul’s fellow neighbours. A couple unburdened by becoming small and embracing life with a newfound hunger. Throwing lavish drunk filled parties and dolling out advice that, whilst unwarranted, is deeply insightful. Yes they are in some respects nothing more than mouthpieces spouting Payne’s own saccharine wisdom, but when the mouthpieces are this much fun (Waltz especially tears into this lust for life with gusto) it is easier to swallow. They are also responsible for an extended set-piece straight out of The Hangover in which Paul consumes an unnamed drug, wandering the party dancing like a loon and ogling the flesh on display. Although a jovial scene, it feels out of place amidst the lo-fi mood of the overall piece. It certainly doesn’t help that Payne films it like an early nineties rave video.
It is after this point that Downsizing introduces its best character and strongest arc. Hong Chau arrives as a Vietnamese cleaner, a once political prisoner shrunk down against her will and smuggled out of the country. Uncomfortably played to begin with as a gross caricature, with her fragmented English and spiky line delivery. As Paul becomes part of her orbit, we see that she represents the dark side of this new universe. For while most live in grand houses and enjoy the lavish lifestyle their newfound riches provide, there are still those who are the foundation. The cleaners, the cooks, the maids, those who work hard and still live in poverty. Chau’s high rise home (cleverly a human sized reconditioned portable office) is overpopulated, dirty and rife with disease. It opens Paul’s eyes to something greater than he is, with Chau revealing a noble heart and painful determination to help those in need. One scene of her breaking down, letting herself experience joy for herself is immensely touching. While a later moment of her using the word ‘fuck’ in different ways is a gut buster of comedy and emotion. She deserves all the plaudits.
The same cannot be said for Damon, however, who tries his best but is lumbered with a role written with little personality. He is our window on this world, wide eyed and excitable before the separation from his wife leaves him a moody depressive. Usually Payne can find the humour and heart in these sort of characters (About Schmidt for example) yet here Damon is nothing more than a cipher, one who becomes close to annoying especially in the films third act. Without spoiling the last section elevates events to cover the end of the world, environmental calamities and a commune visit that is cliched cloying nonsense. There is a nobility to the messages Payne and Taylor are saying, but they are delivered with lunk-headed obviousness. Damon turning into a character the film may have earnt but one who you just don’t care about. It is a disappointing finale to a film that had much deeper complex themes to work with.
Still Payne directs with confidence, marrying the clever believable visual work (a terrific mixture of forced perspective, CGI and camera trickery) with a tonal balance that he just about gets right. Downsizing does suffer from that usual ‘Oscar’ time issue of being way too overlong, that third act not only out of leftfield but dragging due to the excessive run time. For all its talk of small being the key to salvation it is ironic that the film itself is intensely too big. Payne should be applauded for his concept, and there is much to like in the performances and the design of his world, but there is a frustrating lack of centre to proceedings. If he had just focused on one thing to say, Downsizing would’ve been a little film with a large power, instead its a big bloated film with little pertinent insight.
Verdict: Terrific visual work, a number of strong performances (Hong Chau for all the awards) and a fascinating concept are lost in an overwritten mawkishness. Its last act never fitting in tonally with its preceding parts.