With an all-star cast and a momentously high concept premise, Downsizing is an intriguing, slightly confused film from Sideways and Nebraska director Alexander Payne.
Payne situates his latest movie with the biggest of big picture ideas: human miniaturization. He paints us a near-future in which scientists have invented a way for human beings to be shrunk to the minuscule height of just five inches.
The breakthrough swiftly grows into a global business, powered by marketing that stresses its enormously positive environmental potential as well as startling financial reality: modest bank account in a normal sized world, become a sizeable fortune in the miniature one. Still Payne infuses his sci-fi fantasy with a welcome set of stakes by making the procedure an irreversible process, leaving our protagonist, downbeat everyman Paul, amiably played by Matt Damon, with a considerable decision on his hands.
A married physiotherapist, Paul begins the film with ambitions of owning his own home with wife Audrey (Kirsten Wiig). Struggling financially however, and unable to afford the house they want, they start to see the new phenomenon of miniaturization, or “downsizing” as its commonly become known as the answer to their problems.
After receiving significant encouragement from an old school friend who’s downsized himself, played typically buoyantly by Jason Sudekis sitting next to a giant chunk of cheese, they take the plunge and decide to undergo the op, subsequently moving in to a picturesque and closed off community for the downsized, called “Lesiureland”.
“The £68 million budget producing some truly stunning special effect work”
The first third of the film, introducing Paul and the concept of shrinking one’s self is wonderfully crafted by Payne. Its unveiling as a technology rouses genuine excitement, with the movie’s hefty £68 million budget producing some truly stunning special effect work resulting in the miniaturizing novelty taking some time to wear off. Similarly, the plot’s set-up employs some deft comic turns, getting the absolute most it can out of the concept with some adept performances by the likes of Sudekis, Laura Dern and Neil Patrick Harris in selling the idea both to Paul and us as an audience.
It’s after this, when Damon wakes up from the operation, immediately checking if everything has transferred in proportion with an amusing glimpse bellow the sheets, that things start to go slightly awry. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor become lost in this little world, unsure quite what message they are trying to relay to the audience. Characters are introduced and discarded in a frenzy, as the plot balloons away from its initial premise at a startling rate.
Environmental doom, consumerism, economic strife, human morality are all thrown at us as we follow Paul past giant vodka bottles and wedding rings, with no single theme conscripted by the film’s writers to take centre stage. This hollow imbalance is manifested at its very core in the form of the movie’s main protagonist.
“Ending up in a slightly ambiguous and thus annoying middle ground”
Damon does what he can, but the truth is Paul is just quite well, boring. Payne’s script can’t seem to decide if he’s supposed to be a down on his luck caricature or a serious intelligent leading man, resulting in him finally ending up in a slightly ambiguous and thus annoying middle ground. Equally Christopher Waltz’s turn as a middle-aged Serbian party boy, who serves as Paul’s Leisureland neighbour was also a bizarre creative choice, with his character coming across more often than not as a frivolous, one-dimensional comic relief.
Still, for its lack of consistency, Downsizing is no bore. It stores more than one game changing twist inside its miniature world with the issue not so much where it’s going but where it’s going to go next. Similarly, another of Downsizing’s successes is the brilliant performance of American actress Hong Chau playing Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist shrunk against her will by her own government who befriends Paul in the miniature world.
Both poignant and comic at the same time, she was by far the stand out performance in the film and thought by many to be one of the biggest snubs at this years Oscars, missing out on a Best Supporting Actress snub.
As for Downsizing as a collective, its definitely worth a watch. Although a little scrambled and lacking in firm direction at times, it’s a gorgeous looking film, with a rich concept that has a lot to say about our world. Still one gets the feeling, if only it committed to telling us a little less, it might have said a whole lot more.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures Via Esquire.com
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