‘Downsizing’ does not reach lofty heights
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Starring: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, and Hong Chau
“Downsizing” – According to Google, the definition of downsizing is: to make a company or organization smaller by eliminating staff positions. Of course, “smaller” means to reduce expenses, and many movies have emotionally captured this guttural corporate practice. “Falling Down” (1993), “Up in the Air” (2009) and “Two Days, One Night” (2014) immediately come to mind, and in 2017, director Alexander Payne seems to have focused his sights on this most unpleasant topic. His movie, however, does not cut into job reduction at all, but instead embraces Google’s second downsizing definition: to make something smaller. In Payne’s science fiction comedy, that something is people. Yes, people.
With Earth’s population reaching seven billion squarely on his mind, Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) discovers the impossible and perfects a means to shrink a human being to just a few inches tall, with the hope that a world inhabited by tiny humans will dramatically reduce consumption and waste.
Save the planet. Sounds easier than shipping seven billion individuals to Mars, right?
Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) – a pleasant, but financially struggling couple - decide to volunteer for this unusual medical procedure, which, of course, is infinitely more complicated than injecting Botox into a forehead or filling a cavity. Speaking of which, Payne introduces some hilarious prep for the soon-to-be-shrunken human beings, including some in-house dentists who remove fillings, because tiny hunks of porcelain or silver do not reduce in size along with their human volunteers. Hey, an impossible issue would occur if a said filling was accidentally left in the mouth of a 5-foot 10-inch man, who now only stands five inches tall.
Many of the film’s little people in a big world scenes offer amusing visuals, including a conventional passenger jet’s seating arrangements and the awkward mechanics of signing an 8 ½” by 11” legal document. Payne, however, does not rely on size disparities throughout his 2-hour 15-minute picture. Movies – like “The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981), “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989) and “Ant-Man” (2015) - have explored these narratives and punchlines before, but here, the suddenly tiny people live in a place called Leisure Land, which is size proportionate. The homes may only reach a height of Barbie’s Dream House, but the comfortable, diminutive McMansions sit on well-manicured lots that resemble suburban utopia with no hints of “giant” ants, killer lawnmowers or normal sized bathtubs with “deadly” faucets that could wash our heroes down the drain.
Payne takes a more personal approach with less focus on the physical journey, and much more on a spiritual one, and specifically, Paul’s. The film’s second half features this regular, middle class American’s attempts to find himself and discover his purpose. The problem is Payne’s film suffers from gentle schizophrenia, as he first sets up a folly, but then unveils his narrative’s intention as a feel-good journey of growth.
At the end of the day, “Downsizing” does not deliver enough of either.
During the movie’s second hour, the miniature statures of Leisure Land’s inhabitants become dramatically less important to the story, and only an occasional reminder (of their miniscule size) is thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile, Paul’s sudden left turn into finding his way becomes paramount, as the movie tries to evoke empathy for Leisure Land’s less affluent citizens. Whether Payne’s and cowriter Jim Taylor’s screenplay-shift feels too abrupt or Damon cannot carry us through Paul’s emotional voyage, the film does not resonate like it should, at least with this critic. Sure, as the lead protagonist, Paul’s effort to overcome life’s obstacles is critical to the success of the movie, but Payne suffocates the audience with it, and the original whimsy does not shrink, but disappears.
By far, the most engaging players are Paul’s eccentric neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and a willful cleaning woman named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). In different ways, they both pull Paul away from his bland, vanilla existence and into a figuratively larger world of societal connections, but these plot threads could have existed without the film’s fantastical initial premise.
Payne’s sci-fi and heartwarming turns are departures from his sardonic comedies like “Election” (1999), “About Schmidt” (2002), “Sideways” (2004), and “Nebraska” (2013). “Downsizing” barely feels like a Payne film, and although stepping out of one’s comfort zone may be good for the soul, this one stumbles on its way to the finish line. “Downsizing” does not deserve a pink slip, but after viewing its performance over 135 minutes, it does not reach lofty heights.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.