Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is a disappointingly shallow dive into a supremely interesting topic. As humanity continues to gunk up Mother Nature’s designs with smog and muck, Payne toys with eco-politics and reminds us that our world needs to be cared for if we’re to continue habitation – but then something strange happens. Characters are introduced, meatier discussions are sidestepped and intellectual debates deflate when one man’s soul-searching journey shifts into prime focus. Execution flips from a broader investigation to such a simple-minded view, losing grip of the magical sci-fi reality Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor dream up. A puzzle missing a few pieces, if you will – with viewers left visualizing the entire picture despite a few empty gaps.
Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, an Occupational Therapist with a permanent residency at Nebraska’s Omaha Steaks factory. He lives with wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) in his childhood home, spends most days “just getting by” and dreams of a better, more exciting life. Paul is on the verge of a midlife crisis, which leads to a joint-decision with Audrey to make a personal jump – they’re going to Downsize. The act of shrinking yourself to live in a less wasteful, smaller-than-life paradise where $152K translates to roughly $12.5 million and opportunities are endless. So begins a journey that the Safraneks will never forget, especially Paul – the man who shrank himself to find a happiness.
The specificity of Downsizing is quite endearing, which makes for a serviceable first act that engages the tiniest details about Payne’s made-up process. Things like currency inflation and a “downsizing” ratio of 2,744:1 in organic cells. As Paul goes through the motions of prosthetic and dental removal (leave a crown in and your head will explode), we’re clued into a fantastical mindset that’s brimming with possible conflicts and outcomes. We know Paul’s life isn’t just magically going to turn around after miniaturization. Up until his welcoming nurse brings him a package of crackers – still regular sized and now looking humorously gigantic – the film’s universe pitches questions and dilemmas like dangling bait on a hook. Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern holding the rods by representing our welcoming party.
Once plotting reaches Leisureland Estates – the model-sized colony where Paul moves into – tone dives and the monotony of life becomes a strange thematic constant. You won’t be getting a suburban dramedy between Aubrey and Paul, because – well, for spoiler’s sake, let’s just say Aubrey isn’t in the picture soon after Paul wakes up. Wiig’s housewife charms never show, much like Payne’s addressing of immigration issues and outsider views on the whole “bigs” versus “smalls” debate. There’s one scene where a drunk bar patron suggests “smalls” shouldn’t have voting rights because they only pay a fraction of government taxes – or none at all – but that’s the only thought on the matter. Payne isn’t here to make a political statement past “Save the environment!,” and even at that, it’s a timid stance.
Instead, we focus on Paul and a Vietnamese “small” (Ngoc Lan Tran, played by Hong Chau) who tried entering the US illegally in a TV box (new-age border crossing). She’s now a cleaning lady who tidies up after an upstairs neighbor, European playboy Dusan (a sleazy and suave Christoph Waltz), throws his signature upper-crust parties. Paul struggles to move on, and Ngoc teaches Paul about what’s most import. It’s all very one-note and with minimal investment, but alas, this is a story about Paul finding himself, so we’re stuck following this romantic narrative trajectory.
Hong Chau ends up stealing the film as a straight-shooting Leisureland inhabitant who opens Paul’s eyes to a slum-like lifestyle that’s not the promised paradise sales agents talk about – but Damon and Chau just don’t craft a relationship that’s worth skimping on larger ideas for. In the simplest way, supporting characters revolve around Paul so that he can experience some grand epiphany about living each day to the fullest and not running away. Waltz is a comical devil with a rotating door of girls coming in and out his bedroom, Udo Kier snags some needed laughs, Chau verbalizes the different kind of American “f*#ks” that exist (love f#&k, pity f@&k, etc), yet Paul – Payne’s main character – represents nothing but basic, vanilla “redemption” arcing. Dazzled by science, but let down by intent.
Downsizing suffers from a short-sighted view and minimal attempts to explore more inquisitive issues that arise outside of Lesiureland’s happy bubble. Without even mentioning sillier asides like how a Norway colony survives without its netted enclosure, segregation and class-shaming are merely just lines mentioned in passing. How “smalls” get their own special place on restaurant tables or markets crashing because less-wealthy persons transition into millionaires just by “downsizing” themselves. One character does tell us “downsizing is about saving yourself,” but that’s not enough to blow off 100 other questions that would have enriched Alexander Payne’s science fair project with relevance. As is, it’s just another format to say live every day like it’s your last. A positive message, but slight and unenthusiastic nonetheless.
Downsizing is a disappointing film about a supremely interesting topic thanks to a shift in direction that's far more basic than the idea of a shrinking man suggests.