An intriguing sci-fi conceit gets short shrift in Alexander Payne’s smartly written but conceptually pedestrian comedy.
Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
Runtime: 135 mins
Release date: 24 January 2018
At first glance, Downsizing looks like something straight out of an early Philip K. Dick story. Scientists develop a way of shrinking human beings to a height of just twelve centimetres, a revolutionary technique that could drastically reduce the amount of waste people produce and have huge ramifications for the environment. Meanwhile, Paul Safranek (Matt Damin), suburban everyman, is struggling to make ends meet.
Paul meets a recently reduced high school buddy at a reunion, who tells him that “downsizing”, as the procedure is known, is more of a financial decision than an environmental one. As a downsizing rep tells Paul later, his $100,000 in equity equates to $12,000,000 in a shrunken community. So Paul and his wife decide to take the plunge and go get themselves small. Well, Paul does. His wife chickens out at the last minute, leaving Paul divorced and alone in a small world.
Paul is described by shrunken profiteer Dusan (a woefully underused Christoph Waltz) as “nice guy, but little bit pathetic.” Pathetic is, perhaps, a tad extreme, but not far from the mark. His wide-eyed naivety is endearing at first, but starts to grate as the film progresses. Damon’s a talented actor, so I’m leaning towards an unintended quirk of Alexander Payne’s script as an explanation for his character’s irritating presence, rather than a flaw in the actor’s performance.
The real standout, in a cast that includes Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, and Laura Dern (like Waltz, all great actors; like Waltz, all underused), is Hong Chau as refugee turned cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran. Lan Tran is a wonderful character, tireless in her quest to help those on the margins of downsized society, and unapologetically abrasive to anyone who gets in her way. Chau’s bizarre Vietnamese accent often descends into a yokel drawl, making her dialogue a delight to listen to.
But Lan Tran also represents the problem that lies at the heart of Downsizing. She is a political refugee, forced to flee her country after being shrunk by her corrupt government. This abuse of the procedure is one of many little satires peppered throughout Payne’s film, but they’re all banished to the background, set dressing for what is essentially another of the director’s wryly observed human dramas.
A barfly rants about how much of a vote, if any, the downsized should get. Regular sized people bemoan the effect on the economy, as more and more money is siphoned away into tiny communities. The unscrupulous, like Waltz’s Dusan, find a myriad of ways to profit from a myriad emerging markets. Anyone of these ideas could have carried a whole film, but instead each one is shunted to the periphery, overheard in news broadcasts or conversations.
Perhaps it’s unfair to criticise a film for not being something it was never intended to be. After all, Alexander Payne doesn’t make science fiction inflected social satires; he makes subtly humorous dramedies about contemporary America. But Downsizing has, at its core, such a great idea, with so much potential. As a science fiction fan, it’s heartbreaking to see that idea so wantonly, brutally wasted.
Don’t get me wrong: Downsizing is a fine Alexander Payne film. It’s funny and smartly written, with a refreshing ideal at its centre, one about not just learning to help people, but to help those most in need. It’s just that, come the end, I was left wondering why it needed the sci-fi conceit at all. Other than the occasional sight gag, this could have played out with normal sized people with little difference. Downsizing is a subtly humorous dramedy that left me craving the speculative satire it could have been.