Dir. Alexander Payne
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, and Jason Sudeikis
Alexander Payne isn’t known for sci-if. His previous films have all been, mostly, great character studies of men. Whether it’s a father and son’s relationship in Nebraska, male bonding in Sideways, or George Clooney struggling with a comatose, unfaithful wife in The Descendants. So it was a suprise to see that he had directed Downsizing, a film with a sci-if high concept, but don’t let the trailers trick you, this is still a male driven character study. It has a lot of ideas, and a lot to say. Maybe too many ideas. Maybe too much to say.
The film takes place in a world not too far removed from our own. Where scientists in a an effort to prevent over population have developed a method in which people can be shrunk to a height of around five inches. Whole communities are set up, for people who decide to under go the procedure known as downsizing. We are then introduced to Matt Damon’s Paul Safranek, and his wife played by Kristen Wiig. They are an average couple who are struggling to get by, and so decide to downsize, as in relative terms their small savings in the real world makes them millionaires in the small world. This is all just setting though as the film soon turns into an exploration about finding your place in the world, and a quest for happiness in a society that has become increasingly commercialised.
There are some really enjoyable moments in the film, but they are too few and far between. The way Payne builds the world is painstakingly realistic, and the first act of the movie works as social commentary and satire. The term downsizing is usually in reference to someone who is moving to a smaller house that better fits their needs. Here, the joke is that you downsize your body in order to buy a McMansion, to live beyond your means. At one point a character explains that you don’t downsize because of the environment, you do it to get small and rich, unless your poor, in which case your just small. The idea of downsizing is sold like the American dream, your chance to have it all, but someone still has to maintain and clean this stepford-esque community. In the film these workers are portrayed as foreigners, who live in a slum just outside this idyllic community. It won’t be lost on the audience that to get to this slum the bus has to pass underneath a giant wall. The film sets up this world beautifully, but the satire doesn’t seem to have a point. It’s neither funny enough, or cutting enough to really say anything.
It’s after the initial first act that the film really loses its way. Tonally it’s all over the show. Trying to mesh together comedy, romance, social satire, and an environmental message, but failing miserably. If the tone isn’t cohesive, than the films overall message is just as muddled. At points, the film becomes preachy about the environment, but at the same time seems to settle on a message of enjoying your life now, and not worrying about the future. It’s as if Payne had two films in his head, one a social satire on consumerism, and the other a film about human excess and the impact on the environment. Confusingly he’s decided to tie it together with the story of a man struggling to find happiness and his place in a consumer driven world. Worse is how two dimensional Matt Damon’s performance is. Described at one point as “a good guy, but also little bit pathetic guy”, by Christoph Waltz, it’s like Matt Damon took that line of dialogue and based his whole character on it, never looking to delve any deeper. He flits between despondency, to complete awe, and back again. The decisions his character makes just as confusing as the tone.
There are some nice performances here though. Christoph Waltz is his usual winning self, saddled with a character which could come across as thoroughly unlikeable, Waltz turns the charm up to 11, and you can’t help but be engaged by him. Hong Chau is a revelation as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese protester who was downsized by her government, and then shipped to the US in a television box, resulting in her losing half a leg (see what I mean about the film’s focus). She lights up the screen in every scene she’s in, and steals all the films best laughs. Other actors are terrifically underserved. Kristen Wiig barely registers, and there are cameos from big names which just end up going nowhere.
You get the feeling that there was a good movie to be found here. The world building is great fun, and when Damon does become miniaturised, it’s really enjoyable watching the mechanics of how the world works, but there’s just not enough of it. The problem is this is just setting, and the fact that they are small has no real bearing on the plot of the film. If Payne had kept it as a focused social satire it could have really worked. I read a definition of the difference between a social justice warrior, and a social justice activist. An activist has a cause and an agenda that they are focused on and are actively participating in the change of, whereas a social justice warrior flits between every hot button topic, but doesn’t give anything enough attention to really elicit change. In that regards this film is definitely a Social Justice Warrior, which is a shame because it feels like such a wasted opportunity.