What a disappointment “Downsizing” turns out to be, a nearly complete waste of an incredibly original concept from director and co-writer Alexander Payne. I can’t believe this is the same artist responsible for “Sideways,” “Election,” and “Nebraska.”
Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are living stressful lives, stuck in mundane jobs and feeling the crunch of financial pressures. When scientists discover a way to shrink humans, miniature communities crop up all over the world, promising a life of luxury and leisure. The couple decide to take part in the permanent “downsizing” process, and the movie explores the aftermath of their decision.
Damon plays Paul as a dull, garden variety nice guy. Christoph Waltz shows up in another one of this signature monotonous roles as a creepy, smirking neighbor. Neither character works and neither are people you’ll actually care about, yet the most intriguing person is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a blunt Vietnamese refugee. While Ngoc is the strongest personality in the film (with a terrific performance from Chau), most everything about her is unsettling due to her character’s thinly veiled racism. Hold your nose as she speaks in broken English for comedic effect, takes up residence in the immigrant slums, finds work as a maid, and finds her white male savior. What should’ve been a game changing character becomes little more than a caricature.
It’s a shame that such a terrific story is so poorly executed. The film feels like three distinct movies in one, which leads to an indecisive exercise in the frustrating. The first third of the film is interesting, clever, and peppered with biting social satire about the scientific discovery that could potentially solve the world’s problem of over population. The second third becomes a distasteful tale of a white man’s redemption by aiding a person of color, and the remainder (which is reminiscent of an end-of-the-world cult movie) is just about as trying as a film can get.
Strangely enough, each element works individually but becomes a jumbled mess as a whole. It’s a grand scale exploration of even grander ideas, yet those bold concepts never quite come together in a cohesive unit. The result is an absurd, disingenuous, and preachy film with flailing satire that lands with a resounding thud.
By the end of the film’s 135 minutes, Payne has unsuccessfully crammed in a laundry list of topics ranging from the criticism of materialism, the government and cults to failed statements about social class, immigrants, global warming, and the American Dream. How ironic that Payne stumbles by reaching too big in a film about being so small.