Three of the great American road movies in recent history belong to director Alexander Payne, having been at the helm of Sideways, About Schmidt and Nebraska. He now returns with something a little different, moving away from the aforementioned sub-genre with the surrealistic, social satire Downsizing – though on this evidence, perhaps he should’ve stayed on the road, for while beguiling and perspicacious in parts, on the whole it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed by this overly-ambitious endeavour.
After years of research, finally Norwegian doctor Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) has made a breakthrough in science – he can shrink people. Presenting this incredible accomplishment to the world, ten years pass and it seems people are shrinking themselves all over the place – in a procedure affectionately known as ‘downsizing’. Initially the idea behind this revolutionary development was to help the world, as overpopulation can be accredited to the rise in global warming – but people really only choose to shrink themselves for personal, and financial gain – for being smaller turns out to be a rather cheaper way of living, as those struggling to get by can live a life of luxury in one of miniature worlds that have been created to home all of the tiny people. Two of which are Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) who decide to downsize and start afresh – four inches high. But the procedure is irreversible…
The film has a fantastic opening act, as Payne sets the scene so well, and like with any great hypothetical satire, he makes this world we’re inhabiting seem so authentic, and the premise so plausible. But then the film gets far too ridiculous – which, in a film about people shrinking themselves, is quite an achievement. Too much happens and the narrative becomes so convoluted, losing its way in emphatic fashion, with all that promise unfulfilled. So while the inclusion of fellow tiny people Dusan (Christoph Waltz), Konrad (Udo Kier) and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) provide a comedic edge, their respective story arcs are detrimental to our investment in the piece.
Payne could go even darker with this production, perhaps playing it a little too safe – as some of the most intriguing aspects derive from how ‘downsizing’ is used as torture, how tyrannical dictators are using it as a means of defeating their enemy – but it’s not explored in enough depth. The film becomes increasingly more contrived as we progress too, in how Paul seems to just keep bumping into people he knows, or people of note. While this may help to move this story along, it does makes it feel so forced in the process. Guess Payne could argue that it’s a small world.
Damon plays the role very well, as he so often does when tasked with portraying the everyday all-American male. Unfortunately he’s not been blessed with a very interesting character here though, complete with so little personality, and while acting as something of a cipher, it makes for a role that is hard to get emotionally attached to – and as the protagonist, the whole film suffers from this shortcoming. Based on recent career choices, it does seem the actor is evidently after a better life – as we’ve seen him pack up and move to both Suburbicon and now Leisureland. What’s wrong with the real world, Damon? Actually don’t answer that.
Downsizing has some wonderful moments, but seems intent on shooting itself in the foot. Now it seems a bizarre statement to ever accuse a filmmaker of being overly ambitious – for that should be a pre-requisite of any filmmaker when undertaking a project of this nature – but in this instance Payne has just strived to accomplish a little too much, and perhaps like his characters, he needs to think just a little smaller.