Arguably one of the year’s biggest releases, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has been a passion project in development for nearly a decade (since 2009). His first written/directed feature since Citizen Ruth to not be adapted from previously existing material, Downsizing is an ambitious yet immensely flawed film. Sure, the concept behind the film is brilliant: a Norwegian scientist (Rolf Lassgård) discovers how to shrink humans down to the economic and ecologic friendly size of five-inches, but the execution leaves so much to be desired that it’s hard not to walk away feeling deceived.
The revelatory Norwegian operation leads to the creation of much smaller communities popping up around the globe, in the hopes of decreasing humanity’s waste output and ecological footprint. Eventually, everyman Paul Safranek (Matt Damon at his absolute schmaltziest) commits to the process with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) in the hopes of bettering their lives and others. However, as Paul’s high school friend Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) remarks, “You mean all that crap about saving the planet? Downsizing is about saving yourself. We live like kings. We got the best houses, best restaurants.”
Thus, the original altruistic goal of Downsizing is revealed to have been consumed and spat out by the jaws of capitalism, meaning that what was once an eco-friendly operation has now become the easiest way for the working class to achieve an upper-class lifestyle. In this regard, Downsizing works as social satire, but it also fails on nearly every other front. It’s a film with such high ambitions, that its swift and relentless pacing causes the film to produce a certain form of amnesia. Which is to say, about every fifteen minutes or so, Downsizing apparently resets its supporting cast, location, tone, and focus. Now, there’s obviously an argument to be made for a “sprawling feature,” but it simply comes down to the fact that Downsizing is an ugly, unfocused, and cheap film.
Ugly in the sense that what is supposedly a socially unifying and humanistic film is really the worst of Alexander Payne’s “white male self-actualizes” films. Unfocused in the way as, previously stated, the plot constantly jumps around in a manner similar to that of throwing objects at a wall and hoping one sticks. Finally, cheap in its use of tired and childish racial, sexual, and toilet humor that either seems completely out of place or undercuts nearly every dramatic moment.
Downsizing is such a confusingly bad film that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. What I think it ultimately comes down to is the script which does neither its cast nor message any favors. One that focuses on Damon’s Safranek, a middle-class white male who, without exactly screaming it, is a man that likes to help. He brings home food for his severely ill mother, and years later, take-out for his wife. What this “uplifting” tale amounts to is, much like Damon’s real life, a man that requires others to realize the humanity of minority groups. Just as Damon requires four daughters to realize that women are people too, Safranek needs an entire crash course in lower income housing and minority perspective to realize that they are people as well (which in its conclusion, is a realization that is mostly spurred by the situation’s similarities to his mother). In a film that so desperately wants to say something about universal struggle, it’s one that doesn’t neglect the trials of the underprivileged, but rather exploits them.
Then there’s the overabundance of themes. While Downsizing is a film about shrinking one’s self, it’s also a supersized thematic wasteland. Even with its lengthy running time, Downsizing commits to exploring: class disparity, privilege, trafficking, mass extinction, and various micro-aggressions (as well as other topics). If there’s any metaphor in the film that perfectly reflects the modus operandi of Downsizing, it’s in the Norwegian’s retaliation to impending doom. In a film that focuses on various symptoms while inching closer to the actual problem, the Norwegian’s decide that rather than attempt to continue fighting back climate change, they’d rather burrow themselves into the Earth, unaffected by the devastation that’ll eventually ensue. That’s exactly the type of film Downsizing is, one that continuously digs itself a deeper hole all the while ignoring the ramifications that go along with it.
Now, if there are any positives to Downsizing, they exist in the film’s production design as well as the incredible performance of Hong Chau. The VFX, design, and overall techs of the operation sequence – and much of the city living - make for a hilarious matter of fact process that while quite fantastical, is perfectly grounded within our own reality through the practical execution of it – the scraping of tiny humans off their operation beds with spatulas – and its human component (the nonchalant nature of the nurses and the concern of genital shrinking). Then there’s Hong Chau, the light at the end of the tunnel of it all. Payne has always managed great performances from his actors, but in a film that’s so miscast or uninterested in utilizing its cast’s talents, it’s truly beautiful to see Chau command every scene she’s a part of.
As a lifelong fan of Alexander Payne, it’s hard to understand how this films misfires on nearly all cylinders. Have I been under some form of hypnosis with his films? Is Downsizing the ultimate personification of every complaint and/or criticism people have so vehemently expressed against the auteur thus far? Perhaps a critical reevaluation is necessary, but at a time when the social and professional landscape of Hollywood is so greatly changing, Downsizing already feels like a film from a bygone era. One in which it is the duty of others to educate the white man on the plights of their people, their situation, and their struggle. If anything, Downsizing cements Payne as a director that is far better suited for adaptation than creation. It’s frustrating to watch talents such as Udo Kier, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, and Maribeth Monroe waste in a film that feels like several moods fighting for dominance. Far from the career highs of Election or Sideways, Downsizing is not only one of the worst films of the year, but the worst of Payne’s career, a stain if you that can rest easily next to whatever it was he did for I Know Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.