2017 | rated R | Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis | directed by Alexander Payne | 2hrs 15mins |
Studio Pitch: Alexander Payne has the solution to the climate change apocalypse: shrinking ourselves
After making movies for years about sad sack men in the middle of mid-life crises, Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor step out of that comfort zone and into an imaginative sci-fi satire more befitting of a Charlie Kaufman or Spike Jonze. Sort of. We’ll get to that.
Downsizing is a deliciously high concept premise, inventively explored. In the not to distant future, science has developed a method that lessens the environmental impact of overpopulation, not by shrinking our population, but shrinking ourselves – to about 5 inches tall – and congregating in micro communities around the globe. Like this year’s monster-mash Colossal, Payne funnels a wacky premise we’re used to being treated for comic effect through a drama – and it is initially off-putting. The opening of the film, telling the story of this technological discovery and stripping it of it’s inherent wackiness, starts off on odd tonal footing. Feeling weirdly static, it is a splash of cold water for an audience that will expect this premise to be played for laughs. Instead we get a very straight-faced environmentalist satire told in the same dry way all of Payne’s films have been told. It’s more character focused and melancholy than the poppy fairy tale a movie about shrinking would suggest.
Eventually we meet Matt Damon (as Paul Safranek), far from Jason Bourne, as Payne’s resident sad sack. He starts out a goofy, gullible, occupational therapist who watches the technology progress on TV and dreams of the small life. Whatever you can fault the film for, it certainly isn’t in the world-building. Payne and Taylor have gone to forensic-like detail into what a world would look like and how we would respond to this technology. The environmental impact, the economics of it, the social ramifications (getting “short” with someone becomes a slur), the detail of how the small communities work, how it effects the residents. Even the process itself which includes ghastly details like forcibly removing all the teeth from sedated patients and re-attaching them on the other side. They seem to have thought of everything. Getting shrunk solves your financial problems: a cash strapped family budget stretches to an equivalent of millions in the mansion-lined corporate planned micro-community LeisureLand. Payne and Taylor create an honest to goodness utopian movie. We get a conflict in the third act, but none of it feels like it is retreating back to the handrails of formulaic convention. They take this premise to places just as strange and unique as it started.
There are some great performances and unique characters here, namely the always reliable Christoph Waltz as Paul’s well-connected French playboy neighbor, and the film’s breakout star Hong Chau, hilarious as a Vietnam defector who survived human smuggling in a TV box with holes in it to become the film’s refreshing leading lady. It is also packed with cameos. Payne called in every favor he had including slipping in previous Payne Players like Laura Dern (Citizen Ruth) and Phil Reeves (Election).
Sadly, unfortunately, the thing that doesn’t work here is Matt Damon. Paul isn’t much of a character. He goes on a journey around the world but doesn’t have much of an arc himself, remaining the gullible schlub from start to finish. He’s the least interesting person we could have gone on this journey with and Damon infuses him with no life. Waltz and Chau do all the heavy lifting here, coming in in the second half to breathe much needed life into the picture. Downsizing expands itself into pretty far out territory in it’s third act with turns that will divide the audience. I really enjoyed this movie all the way through. I was intrigued and compelled with each new place Payne too this story even if it was with a bland and blah hero, but there is no doubt the last act is going to turn off many viewers.
Whether you take Downsizing as a doomsday film or a cult film, Payne has made the Alexander Payne version of a Charlie Kaufman movie. It’s admirable and it’s unique and it’s intriguing but I’m not certain these two styles are quite gelling. Payne doesn’t change his style to suit the material, instead telling a much more cinematic story just like he would his indie road movies. It’s an oddly silent movie in the music department as well, where it feels like Payne just lets some of the bits hang out there to die on the vine. He seems to have put all his work into the world building, into Downsizing as a speculative essay, but then seems to have lost interest in putting the thing together in the final shaping.
As a classically imaginative sci-fi speculative essay Downsizing is totally compelling and well crafted. And as a breakout film for Chau it’s worth seeing, almost for her performance alone. But as a movie something about it feels undercooked. Like a piano that is slightly off key.