The reach of possibilities that could unfurl within the world that director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have imagined in Downsizing – one where a small population of citizens have opted to shrink themselves to live a bigger, better life – is near limitless. At a microscopic size, everything fundmentally changes. You can get hammered off a thimble-full of wine. When traveling at sea in a tiny vessel, the threat of the most minor whitecap would pose tsunami-sized peril. A mosquito would be a winged monstrosity. And a daring cinematic spectacle. Even the humans who have not opted to go the way of the Shrinky Dink could wield awesome power over their minuscule counterparts, the most average citizen having the ability to go on a Godzilla-like rampage throughout the wee one’s shrunken cities if ever they decided to.
None of this potential is realized – making at least this film critic clamor for a rewind button to spur budget reassessments; I would have them invest more in wowing special effects and less in star Matt Damon’s costly sum – and we’re instead treated to a social satire that’s all over the place in terms of the issues it wants to tackle but rarely actually exploring the central intriguing idea of people getting, ya know, small. That our characters rarely actually face any challenges associated with their size undermines the whole conceit as Payne and Taylor endeavor to instead explore middle-aged white man milieu, the call of environmentalism and the immigrant experience. As can be expected, wrangling these three into one tightly-knit narrative is a challenge and not one that Downsizing can necessarily overcome.
Damon is a Paul Safranek, a bored and boring occupational therapist whose dullness is underscored by the fact that nobody seems to be able pronounce his last name and he doesn’t care enough to correct them. Paul and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) lead an average life, struggling to pay their bills, stuck in a rut, aspiring to change things up. When they run into some old friends that have undergone the highly controversial and kind of in vogue “downsizing”, a non-reversal procedure that shrinks humans to a seventh of their size, they see a chance to really shake their lives up. The fact that big-man money is worth a lot more at small-man’s size, their savings ballooning into the millions after they make the transition, promises them a life of once-unimaginable luxury once they’ve become 5 inches tall.
But that too is all for naught as Paul’s wife abandons him at the last minute and the aspiring retiree returns to a droning life at a call center, dating equally dull single moms his size and going through the humdrum motions. Payne tries to riff on the old adage that nowhere matter where you go, there you are. That troubles cannot be shrunk, even if your body can. Here Christoph Waltz’s silver-tongued party-animal and international businessman Dusan enters the picture and turn Paul’s life upside-down, introducing him to European party culture and MDMA (rolling balls, Damon shines). When Paul meets Dusan’s one-legged immigrant housemaid Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau) he develops something between a crush and an infatuation with the woman, enlisting to help her in her daily humanitarian tasks, threatening to give purpose to a man desperately short on anything that resembles such.
If you’re having trouble picturing everything I’ve described coalescing into one film that’s because Downsizing struggles to do exactly that, failing to gracefully condense its many subplot into a great united whole. And I haven’t even mentioned the Biblical spirit journey to Little Norway. Downsizing operates much like a premium channel dramedy, having distinctly different chapters in its first, second and third act, each that feel episodic and tonally disparate in nature, that waffles between high-brow comedy and somber dramatics. That it almost comes together in the end into something halfway meaningful and ends up being a somewhat worthwhile ride is no tiny miracle.
Even with so many hurdles standing in the way to greatness, Downsizing still has stuff to celebrate and remember. Hong Chau is strong as the choppy-cadenced, hobbling, Vietnamese Ngoc Lan, leading a fairly strong cast. Payne and Taylor mine some good comedic bits, returning to situational irony, physical humor and the like to illicit a good number of laughs. There’s a detonation scene in the tail-end that had me (and many in the audience) absolutely howling. The intention is there, a writer and director attempting to combine social satire with spectacle feature draw to tell a pressing story about the dangers of global climate change and the everyday dangers immigrant face, but Downsizing just never really evolves into a proper whole. Biting off more than it can chew, it all seems too scattershot, too meandering, too center-less. A prime example of when trying to cram so many points in ultimately renders something kind of pointless.
CONCLUSION: ‘Downsizing’ puts its solid cast to good use, has a handful of rather funny moments and definitely seems to have a lot to say, but it fails to capitalize on the “man shrinks” concept in any meaningful way, shape or size, making for a spectacle-fueled social satire that lacks spectacle and isn’t as nearly as sage or satirical as it thinks it is.