A film review by Craig J. Koban January 7, 2018


2017, R, 135 mins.


Matt Damon as Paul Safranek  /  Christoph Waltz as Dusan Mirkovic  /  Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran  /  Kristen Wiig as Audrey Safranek  /  Rolf Lassgård as Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen  /  Ingjerd Egeberg as Anne-Helene Asbjørnsen  /  Udo Kier as Joris  /  Jason Sudeikis as Dave Johnson  /  Margo Martindale as Woman on Shuttle  /  Neil Patrick Harris as Jeff Lonowski  /  Laura Dern as Laura Lonowski  /  Niecy Nash as Leisureland Salesperson

Directed by Alexander Payne  /  Written by Payne and Jim Taylor

DOWNSIZING represents an absolutely compelling change of pace for Nebraska born and raised writer/director Alexander Payne, whom up until this point in his career has made charmingly idiosyncratic dramedies of a decidedly modest scale (he helmed one of the best high school comedies of all time in 1999's ELECTION, followed that up with memorably strong observational pieces like SIDEWAYS and THE DESCENDANTS, and recently made the sublime NEBRASKA in 2013).  

DOWNSIZING marks the acclaimed filmmaker's first foray into pure science fiction genres (albeit with comedic flourishes), and this dystopian satire most assuredly has an ingenuous premise that seems ripe for endlessly exploration.  Regrettably, the usually assured Payne (alongside long-term co-writing partner Jim Taylor) takes too many peculiar narrative detours in DOWNSZING's latter stages, which nearly capsizes its wondrously enthralling opening sixty minutes. 

That's not to say that Payne's film isn't ambitious - it's far more epically staged and sprawling than anything he has attempted before, not to mention that, like great thoughtful sci-fi, it uses its fantastical story to parallel reality-based ills.  DOWNSIZING's premise, as mentioned, is a real tantalizing dozy: A man of the not-to-distant future irreversibly shrinks himself down to the size of a smart phone to live the rest of his life in a shielded community of other little people to escape personal and financial hardships and environmental ruin.  Beyond that frankly absurd concept lies Payne's willingness to tackle serious subject matter and themes regarding climate change, overpopulation, rampant consumerism run amok, and even the refugee crisis.  DOWNSIZING has so much it wants to say about legitimately weighty things that it almost becomes, as a negative result, too overstuffed for its own good.  The longer the film progresses the more unfocused, undisciplined, and unwieldy it becomes, nearly to the point of inspiring head scratching in viewers that are trying to decide just what Payne is ultimately trying to say here. 



The film's opening is quite enthralling, though, as we see a group of scientists in Norway that have figured out a way to medically shrink human beings down to five inches, which they deem is a natural solution to help solve the planet's nagging overpopulation and what will be a lack of resources for all going forward in a climate change doomed environment.  Their fairly logical hypothesis is simple: If humans were drastically smaller, then they would leave a smaller carbon footprint, which is integral to saving the species and the Earth's ecology moving forward.  The film then flashes forward several years to an unspecified time in the not-to-distant future when the scientific process of miniaturizing people - colloquially known as "downsizing" - has become incredibly popular, resulting in many "going small" to save their livelihoods in little domed covered towns (which protects them from insects, animals, and extremes in weather) that looks like the largest Barbie playset ever envisioned.  The most enticing aspect for people downsizing is that their meager net worth in the normal world becomes massive in the downsized world, seeing as everything from houses to cars to clothing is smaller, thereby costing infinitely less. 

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a down-on-his luck everyman that loves his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), but hates how financially downtrodden they've become.  He works a fairly soul crushing dead-end job without much hopes for occupational improvement, not to mention that he feels constantly stymied in his dreams of buying a luxury dream house for him and Audrey.  After a chance meeting with an old high school classmate (Jason Sudeikis) that has downsized, Paul feels convinced to go through the procedure with his wife for an opportunity to love the high roller life in the "small" town affectionately named "Leisureland" (Pleasantville was taken).  The best sections of DOWNSIZING showcase the whole process by which Paul and countless others go through the shrinking process, which is revealed in fascinating detail.  The world building here is terrific, especially in the way the film explains, for instance, how all hair, gold teeth and fillings must be removed, seeing as they can't be shrunk (that would lead to serious complications).  DOWNSIZING has a welcoming sense of startling discovery in the manner Payne crafts his world based on the many logical questions that viewers have about it without overlooking anything. 

Leisureland as well is sensationally realized, which seems like the idealistic suburban paradise hand crafted from a Norman Rockwell painting.  The visual effects on display here are rather thankless, seeing as so many previous films before that have attempted to make miniaturized humans look credible next to normal sized ones have never come off as credible, but Payne - despite no real background in VFX - makes most of the shots here feel eerily authentic.  Perhaps the best accolade that I could give DOWNSIZING is that Payne never plays out his premise strictly for chuckles; for the most part, he takes the idea of downsizing as seriously as any other speculative science fiction film would, which allows for our initial buy-in and immersion.  Yes, there are many amusing sight gags to be had at the expense of Paul and many other characters in the film that have gone small, but they don't draw conspicuous attention to themselves.  Considering that most of Payne's previous films have largely played out for laughs, I appreciated how DOWNSIZING doesn't treat its out-there premise as a campy joke. 

Yet, for as astoundingly realized the film is at establishing and developing its premise, DOWNSIZING seems to get lost in the shuffle of far too many subplots, far too many supporting characters, and far too many ideas that unavoidably begin to conflict with one another.  Scripting unpredictability can often be seen as an asset, and DOWNSIZING most definitely doesn't go down the brow beaten and obligatory path; to its credit, it does become difficult to see where Payne is taking this material.  Yet, by around the midway point Payne's grasp of his narrative trajectory seems to wane, showing Paul dealing with a personal crisis and the aftermath of that, which follows him hooking up with his obnoxiously hedonistic neighbor (Christoph Waltz) that eventually leads to him meeting a lowly Vietnam refugee (Hong Chau) that shows Paul the darker underbelly of Leisureland in how it racially and economically segregates the rich from the poor and the haves from the have nots. 

For as much unorthodox charm that Chau brings to her broken English speaking cleaning lady that instills in Paul a sobering wake up call to rethink his whole existence in Leisureland, the subplot involving both of them - which unconvincingly builds to romance - feels like it's from a whole other movie altogether.  Part of my big problem with DOWNSIZING is that I didn't find myself thoroughly invested in any of its character beats.  Damon and Chau have very little palpable chemistry as an  odd couple, not to mention that Paul, at least on paper, is so dull and lacking in charisma as a protagonist that it becomes an arduous task to root him on through the remainder of the story.  In its last half DOWNSIZING becomes tonally jumbled and tries to be too many incongruent movies at once.  That, and the themes start to become a bit more obvious and force fed, especially as the story reaches a perplexing third act that hastily migrates towards end of the world scenarios that feels completely out of left field. 

I've loved, in one form or capacity, all of Payne's previous films, which leaves me in a highly disappointed state in trying to recommend DOWNSIZING.  I admire and applaud Payne - or any filmmaker, for that matter - that willfully tries to go outside of his/her comfort window and attempt something fresh, and DOWNSIZING deserves kudos for having a unique vision and something profound to say in the sci-fi genre, which is welcoming, especially in an era when too many genre efforts are awash in mindless spectacle and ostentatious visual effects overkill.  Unfortunately, there's simply too many ingredients thrown in here that aren't mixed fluidly together, which leaves Payne's latest risk taker arguably one of his messier and lesser films.  The chances he takes with this material are to be commended, but his chaotically undisciplined approach to it is hard not to criticize. 

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