Alexander Payne, the man behind such great comedies as Election and Sideways, has been able to make some remarkably big films about remarkably small ideas. His latest effort is Downsizing, a film that takes that concept very literally, as it’s actually about people who make the decision to shrink themselves and live much smaller, and yet potentially bigger, lives. The premise of Downsizing is absurd, of course. That’s part of how satire works, and as a satire, Downsizing isn’t bad. Unfortunately, the film often loses track of those elements, and what we’re left with isn’t nearly as creative or interesting as the setup promises.
Matt Damon is Paul Safranek, a middle-class guy living in a menial house and working a menial job while he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) dream of something more. They go on house tours of places they can’t afford, while Paul laments the life he might have had, were it not for his now-deceased mother having gotten sick when he was in school. An opportunity opens up, however, when Paul meets an old friend (Jason Sudeikis) at a class reunion who made the decision to “Downsize,” or undergo the process of physically shrinking himself to only a few inches tall. The process was invented by scientists looking to eliminate the burden of overpopulation, but the real value to most people is that, since the cost of living at that size is equally reduced, money goes a lot further, and the struggling Safranek’s can be rich. Unfortunately, after Paul’s wife bails on the procedure at the last minute, after Paul has already done it, and then takes all the money in the divorce, Paul is back living in a menial apartment and working a menial job.
The fact that making this radical, and irreversible, decision didn’t really change anything in Paul Safranek’s life is, of course, the whole point. However, it’s a point that the character has trouble realizing, leading to him continuing to make similar decisions over and over again. Unfortunately, the intriguing set-up and the entire science fiction premise of the film gets mostly left behind for a fairly rote mid-life crisis story about a white guy discovering that there are people in this world who have it a lot worse than he does, and that finding your place in the world doesn’t mean you have to do something big.
The entire second half of Downsizing could be from an entirely different movie, and you likely wouldn’t notice. Even the visual sight gags of seeing “normal sized” items surrounding the tiny people are mostly abandoned. Which is too bad, because the set pieces are certainly visually interesting, like a construction trailer that has been turned into tenements for the poor, or a massive table centerpiece that consists of a single rose. As the latter half of the movie drags on, it could have used a little something to spice it up.
There are a couple of highlight performances. Christoph Waltz plays Damon’s exuberant European neighbor Dusan, and while the plot gives him little to do, he’s is entertaining every moment he’s on the screen. The most interesting character, however, is Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissonant who escaped from prison in a TV box, but is now left cleaning the houses of the rich, played by the relatively unknown Hong Chau. While many may take issue with the character’s portrayal, and her emphasized broken English manner of speaking, it’s difficult to not connect with her. So much so that one finds themselves wishing the movie had been more about her story, as it probably would have been more interesting than the one we got.
Downsizing sets itself up as interesting social satire, and that part of the movie is interesting, but it gets overshadowed by a much more dull story that jettisons the premise almost entirely. It isn’t without humor or creativity, but it just doesn’t have enough of either to carry itself through.