Director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor enter new genre territory with Downsizing, but it’s filled with the themes found in their previous efforts. A central character searching for meaning in life, marital strife, and classism are on display. Unlike prior features, science fiction elements and a bigger budget are in the mix. This is a story loaded with intriguing prospects that doesn’t lead to a totally rewarding whole.
A prologue shows the advent of a monumental discovery by Norwegian scientists – the ability to shrink humans to only five inches tall. The reasoning to do it is to save the Earth by significantly reducing pollution and overpopulation. Not all citizens who choose to go through the procedure are hardcore environmentalists. There’s also the added bonus that downsizing is a financial boon. Every dollar in big world translates to about a grand in the smaller one.
This is the primary reason why occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) choose their new path. The Omaha couple agree to downsize and populate the colony of Leisureland. In Nebraska, they’re scraping by. They will be millionaires post op. A surprise happens on the way to the procedure. Paul goes through with it, but Audrey backs out and leaves him.
Lonely Paul must adjust to his tiny new surroundings and life. His eventual divorce agreement causes him to trade his Leisureland mansion for an apartment (albeit a pretty nice one). Up to this point, Downsizing is pretty nifty. The leadup and explanations of how this new world works are fascinating. There’s some prejudice involved with the full size humans meeting those about to become small. Should they get full voting rights, for instance? We also discover there’s nefarious governments that forcibly shrink their dissidents.
Further exploration of themes like these could have made a potentially rich experience. Downsizing goes a different direction. Paul’s upstairs neighbor is a party animal played with expected gusto by Christoph Waltz. It’s through this freewheeling character that Paul meets Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese political activist who was punished by that government. She’s an amputee and cleaning lady with a heart of gold. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to the slums of Leisureland where he begins to medically assist its poor residents. He also begins to fall for his companion.
The picture, at this juncture, largely abandons its sci fi leanings and concentrates on issues of self-worth, love, and political themes. Of course, all these things have been present in many great science fiction efforts. However, the tone of Downsizing is a shifty one. There’s moments of satire that aren’t biting enough and an earnestness that can come off cloying. That latter description could sometimes apply to Damon’s work. Payne has directed a number of actors to Oscar nominations. His lead here displays the same syrupy conviction in which he once bought a zoo. Chau is a different story. She creates a character whose backstory might have been really rewarding if shown onscreen. Unfortunately, Ngoc Lan eventually becomes just the love interest to the blander protagonist.
Payne and Taylor deserve a degree of credit for crafting this odd concoction. There’s some original thoughts here and some sequences are truly impressive, especially the downsizing procedure itself. That said, the emotional payoff the filmmakers are reaching for never quite reached me. There are moments in About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska that did so more often and with an appreciated higher level of subtlety. So while I admire Downsizing for some big ideas, the overall impact is smaller.
**1/2 (out of four)