After his masterpieces The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013), director and writer Alexander Payne brings the world an ambitious film, Downsizing. The term “downsizing”, refers to a medical procedure that shrinks people in order to cut down on human waste (the smaller the person the less waste is produced) in hopes of saving the planet from imminent disaster.
Downsizing follows an occupational therapist named Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) who decides to undergo the procedure with his wife, Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig). When Audrey decides to not go through with the procedure, Paul must reevaluate who he is and all he believes in. Along his journey, he befriends a Vietnamese activist named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), and aging playboys Duson Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and Joris Konrad (Udo Kier).
Paul is an “everyman”. He lives a tired job that he never truly wanted and always dreams of finding his purpose. It’s only when his high school friend Dave (Jason Sudekis) arrives at a reunion after being “downsized” that Paul decides that he too should “go small.” Although the story of an “everyman” is nothing new, it is an entertaining premise to watch, but unfortunately the film takes other directions, which although not terrible, results in a choppy plot.
Matt Damon provides an adequate performance as Paul, although it is not the most interesting in the film. However, Hong Chau’s character steals every scene that she’s in. Initially, I thought that the character would only be played for laughs, but very quickly I realized that this was not the case. Chau gives one of the most layered performances in the film as a Vietnamese woman who was shrunk against her will by her government, the aftermath of which results in her losing a leg.
When we finally see where Ngoc Lan lives, it is when we finally see the ugly side of Leisureland. Much like real life, there is a poverty-stricken community outside of the “upper-class” one. Here, there are starving families, ill individuals, and almost all of them are non-white. Ngoc Lan cares for dozens of these people, either by bringing them food or medicine, which Paul quickly comes to admire. This is one of the greatest aspects of the film, because it finally sheds light on the world that most people choose to ignore, plus Chau’s performance is often extremely funny.
Almost the moral opposite of Ngoc Lan is Waltz’s character, Duson. A happy-go-lucky playboy who loves partying almost as much as money, Duson is extremely likable. Although not as important or layered as Ngoc Lan, Duson manages to take the spotlight away from other characters with ease. Waltz, as he always does, brings his character to life with a devilishly charming performance that allows you to be enamored, no matter how vile or repulsive the character.
Unfortunately, the film never really amounts to much more than meets the eye. It introduces complex themes and ideas, but quickly simplifies them for the audience, leaving nothing for us to chew on. Any problem in need of solving, such as helping others or protecting the environment, is either fixed in a few minutes or just brushed aside altogether. On top of that, the film never feels too much like a drama or too much like a comedy, resulting in a completely unbalanced tone.
Payne deserves credit for attempting to send several important messages all the while trying to make you laugh. The film truly is an ambitious one, boasting themes of environmentalism, white privilege, and community, but it unfortunately becomes shrouded by an uneven tone and a 135-minute running time. Although there are some truly remarkable performances and a couple of laughs, Downsizing ultimately comes up short when it could have been so much bigger.