Alexander Payne is second only to Woody Allen for an American director remarkably consistent in making dramas with human interest and quality evident even in their weakest works. Payne’s filmography is significantly smaller, but in his three decade-long film career, he has made Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska, the latter two among this decade’s best dramas, consecutively. This especially makes his latest, Downsizing, feel much weaker given how it throws a wrench in what was an admirable streak of quality films.
The film’s titular concept is introduced during the first twenty minutes: in the not-so-distant future, cellular biology has advanced to the point where it is now possible to combat the issue of overpopulation and environmental pollution by shrinking human-beings down to about five inches in size. Affectionately referred to as “small” humans, the shrunken subjects are afforded unbelievable luxuries for little-to-no money at all (diamond jewelry sets are $83, Cohiba cigars are a dollar), and money problems all but evaporate thanks to how far a dollar goes. $100,000 translates to around $12.5 million once moved into a particular community for the small.
These reasons and more attract the cash-strapped couple of Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) to the possibility of undergoing the medically safe procedure and liquidating all their assets in order to move to Leisureland, a lavish gated community. When they decide to pull the trigger, Audrey backs out without warning Paul, who finds out when he is post-op in a bed, bald and now permanently shrunken down to the side of a golf pencil. The two undergo a divorce while he spends a year settling in his new mansion in Leisureland.
A year later, Paul becomes acquainted with his eccentric Serbian neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), who throws parties for the rich and lazy. The morning after attending a real rager, Paul finds a Vietnamese woman named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). He recognizes Lan Tran from a television report months back on refugees and immigrants downsizing themselves in order to escape turmoil in their home countries. Lan Tran, along with several others, smuggled into a television box and found her way to Leisureland after being shrunk against her will by her government. The ordeal left her with an amputated foot. Paul, who went to medical school, assists Lan Tran and her prosthetic foot and winds up working for her cleaning service which doubles as a way to provide assistance to the elderly and impoverished. Paul winds up seeing the uglier side of downsizing when he, Dusan, and Lan Tran take a trip to Norway, where the pioneering small community exists, burdened now more than ever by a health crisis among other terrible things.
Payne’s films have an elegant balance of comedy and drama; the comedy is often dialog-driven and wryly funny and the drama is often intimately personal. With Downsizing, Payne turns to a more maudlin, mostly melodramatic route in the second half, a bait-and-switch in direction for a film that was ostensibly going to consider the fantastical and satirical elements of its premise. The concept of Downsizing is open to a plethora of comedic and dramatic possibilities — many of which able to function thoughtfully and succinctly in Payne’s wheelhouse — and yet the ambitions are compromised in order to tell a treacly tale of immigration and environmentalism that comes off as little else besides elitist pandering to those less fortunate
Matt Damon has functioned in this realm of formula in the past. His 2012 film Promised Land, which few probably remember, dealt with fracking and adverse effects on the environment in the same hamfisted manner. One element that made that film tolerable was that it sold itself as a preachy tale against hydraulic fracturing from the start insofar that it was still a competently written drama. Conversely, Downsizing is a story with a lot more going for it than a wannabe timely story about environmentalism and our perception of immigrants, and even if it wanted to address these topics, the way Payne positions the story during the first half is so different from the end result that it’s disjointed rather than impactful. The first forty-five minutes looks at the Downsizing process while humanizing Paul and Audrey’s personal life. Audrey becomes a nonfactor in the film by the time Lan Tran is introduced, and when her story gets going, she fades into the background for the small people of the Norway slums to emerge. Payne never finds a way to keep this story balanced; he zigs and zags until the initial concept is buried in a muddle of characters and marginally developed subplots that feel like incomplete human interest stories. They also come to feel like the titular premise was just a way to get butts in seats.
The charming element in what doesn’t amount to much else besides a forced morality play is that Damon plays his character with such a squareness that it begs for laughs. I’ve officially found an actor who can exclaim “wow!” better than Owen Wilson, as Damon utters that line thrice in the film. Hong Chau is the one performance here that’s genuinely good on its own merits, even though her character is written in such a slight, sometimes stereotypical fashion, she plays it straight regardless. Waltz is horrendously miscast, and Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis, who were big presences in the trailers, are unessential accoutrements to a narrative that sees them as exclusionary once its true, inferior colors surface.
Despite a premise dripping with potential, convincing special effects and makeup, and a remarkably silly Damon performance that clicks against all odds, Downsizing will and should go down as one of the year’s most disappointing films. Ignoring Payne’s involvement for a minute and looking at the film on its own merits, it’s little besides a well-intentioned cry for selflessness and charity that comes across as a jaded bait-and-switch lecture. It’s a lecture akin to your parents claiming you’ll go for dinner at your favorite restaurant only for dinner to dissolve into discussions about your future and other uncertainties. No one wants that and I don’t see many wanting Downsizing in its current form.
NOTE: As of this writing, Downsizing is available to stream on Pluto TV, free of charge.
Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, and Jason Sudeikis. Directed by: Alexander Payne.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!