The Affable ‘Downsizing’ Never Really Capitalizes on its Premise
The latest Alexander Payne film thinks small
Downsizing begins with the discovery of a radical new procedure that can miniaturize biological matter with no side effects. This is seen as a possible solution to the problems brought about by climate change, with people consuming much less as five inch versions of themselves. We then meet mild-mannered occupational physical therapist Paul (Matt Damon), who along with his wife Audrey considers shrinking down in order to overcome their financial burdens. Paul goes through the procedure, but wakes up to find that Audrey backed out at the last minute. The film follows Paul as he adjusts to his new shrunken life, struggling to find his place while being newly alone.
The story moves kind of aimlessly. It spends a good long time with the announcement of the procedure and the way people react to it before actually getting to the meat of the story of the main character. This might seem like a high-concept movie at first, with its big sci-fi premise, but at its heart, it’s just a story of a guy burdened with the ennui of the unhinged American life, trying to find some meaning in all the absurdity he faces every day. There is some satirical value in Paul’s hapless search for significance in a life that has turned him literally small, but the film as a whole never feels anchored enough in any particular idea to really be effective.
The film is just never really able to turn its premise into a solid narrative. It has Paul mainly as an observer, jumping into strange situations he could have never imagined, learning the fairly mundane lesson that he doesn’t have to blindly stumble through the routine of his life, and that he might want to dedicate himself to trying to help others. The film builds itself almost entirely on Paul’s inability to assert himself, having him trip clumsily into situations through the decisions of the more active supporting characters. The world that they explore is somewhat interesting, but in the end, the film’s general attitude seems to be that nothing will really change, and this limits the novelty of what we get to see.
Scene to scene, the film is frequently funny, if a tad too reliant on some casually racist comedy mined from cultural differences. The film is most effective when it’s playing in Alexander Payne’s wheelhouse, amplifying the small, passive-aggressive ways that people can be cruel, unearthing the true intentions behind something that could be said with a smile. In general, the film is more compelling on a personal scale, the film in tune with the minor foibles that can make social interaction so difficult. On a larger scale, it’s tougher to buy the film’s general outlook on humanity.
Matt Damon, playing the generally ineffectual Paul, is all right. Damon shines in the little bursts of anger and passion that manage to get through the placid Midwestern facade, but those moments don’t happen often enough. Hong Chau brings most of the energy to the film’s second half, and while she’s pretty good, there are bits of performance that don’t feel entirely comfortable. Christoph Waltz is pretty fun as Paul’s European caricature of an upstairs neighbor. There isn’t a lot to the performance, but it’s kind of memorable, at least.
By the end of Downsizing, one begins to wonder if it actually mattered at all that the character was shrunk down to five inches. Apart from the occasional bits of visual comedy, and the early exploration of people’s reactions to the very concept, it doesn’t really feel like the premise was all that important to the story that ended up being told. And while there’s still some merit to what we ended up getting, the film’s inability to capitalize of the specifics of its own premise makes it feels like a failure of imagination. There’s a lot more to say about becoming small, but the film just doesn’t get to it.
DOWNSIZING IS NOW SHOWING AT SELECTED AYALA MALLS CINEMAS.
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.