Film Review – Downsizing
Downsizing is as ambitious as it is dreadfully, dreadfully boring. It’s a tricky balance to pull off but one director Alexander Payne has, unfortunately, proven himself capable of.
If you’ve seen the TV spots and think you’re in for a racier Honey, I Shrunk The Kids starring some of your favorite SNL alum, return your wallet to your pocket. This is not that.
Let’s first break down the sky high concept: scientists have created a way to shrink humans down to the size of gerbils. Making the transition is primarily financially motivated, as it allows you to live in a mansion and retire on a blue collar budget. A dollar really stretches when you’re only three apples high. And the tax breaks are murmured to be insane.
Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist who is enamored at the prospect of tiny freedom. He and his wife (an unfortunately wasted Kristen Wiig) are struggling to keep up on bills and decide to make the plunge. Things, let’s say, do not go as planned. Enter jarring, tonal shift.
Paul inhabits a downsizing community known as Leisure Land, sort of a Pleasantville for schlubs. Here he connects with his European cad of a neighbor, played by an always-game Christoph Waltz. It’s through him that Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who was shrunk for queasy, governmental means. She’s essentially forced to play housekeeper and subjugated to the outskirts of Leisure Land, in a dank warehouse with other immigrants. It’s a clunky metaphor in a too often wrong-headed movie.
The moment Paul joins Leisure Land is the moment the film loses control of itself. What began as a thought-provoking, visually daring conceit instantly transforms into a humdrum rom-com. Chau’s performance is outstanding throughout, which makes it all the more disappointing that Payne has cast her as the beaten-down sage who opens Paul’s eyes to the horrors of humanity. Why we need Damon, the ostensible star, as our entry point into this allegory at all is baffling to me.
It truly pains me to be so hard on Downsizing, as Alexander Payne is among my favorite contemporary directors. He has a great knack for fleshing out characters who could otherwise be deemed stereotypical (usually Middle-American) dopes. Paul Safranek is not a fleshed out character. Furthermore, the movie brinks a little too closely to the White Savior Well. Had this been a starring vehicle for Chau, a lot of the film’s forced messages could have felt earned. As it stands, though, it is a movie spectacle minus the spectacle. It becomes so weighed down in dreariness you forget the only reason you took the screening in the first place was because of how fun it looked. (That last observation might be specific to me.)
Still, Hong Chau is a dynamo and, despite my many misgivings, I’d love to see her get an Oscar nod. I also very much look forward to Alexander Payne’s next project. Even this misfire is worthy of conversation.