Downsizing is Director Alexander Payne’s first film since Nebraska in 2013 so of course there is reason to be excited. Payne has always reveled in his brand of Americana – a view of the Midwest that is salty, sad and at times a bit sanguine – but nonetheless all his own. He writes about what he knows and few Director’s have given us such assured vision and direction in the last several decades. So it pains me to report that the man that has presided over classics such as Election, Sideways and Citizen Ruth has almost completely whiffed with his most recent venture.
It’s not that Downsizing is a complete misfire – but it takes a fruitful scifi concept and whittles it down to a very basic and supremely bizarre vision of middle American gender politics and white guy soul searching. In the seemingly near future a group of Scandinavian scientists discover a way to shrink matter (including human beings) to roughly half-an-inch high. They do it on the backs of the hope that they can save the world from the irreparable damage of global warming. It’s a noble venture to be sure.
Flash forward several years and a small percentage of the world’s population has downsized. When small, their money is dramatically more valuable – they live in hermetically sealed communities that provide them nice, cookie cutter mcmansion lives. This draws the curiosity of small town physical therapist Paul Sefranek (Matt Damon.) He and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are having money problems and decide the best move is to go get small – a new start with all the money they will ever need.
What follows is the film’s most effective sequence – a wonderful look at the process of downsizing. Each person is shaved from head to toe, all their fillings are removed, their nails are shaved down etc. It’s Payne’s best sequence and one that truly shows what his vision could’ve been.
What follows is what can only be described as bizarre. Instead of exploring the worlds of the small, Payne chooses to paint those differences on the periphery focusing almost solely on the basic human plight our tiny brethren encounter. It’s an odd choice given…yah know, they are really small now. That story could’ve been told with big people.
Paul meets different eccentric characters including his very handsy upstairs neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and a very offensive Asian stereotype masquerading as a housecleaner named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau.)
Ultimately Downsizing finds a few sweet moments here and there and veers into very odd territory in the third act (it’s so out of left field I’d be remiss to spoil it) but it never rises above the general malaise that sits on the film like a heavy fondant. Payne’s lowkey pacing has worked perfectly in the past, especially when dealing with slower characters who take their time when making decisions. But here his canvas is global and he’s working with a truly genius film concept. It’s just odd how small it all feels.