For its first hour, Downsizing
is a brilliant and intriguing Sci-Fi comedy that seems to be building up to be about Social Class Issues. But then it changes its mind about what it wants to be about. And then again. It gets to the point that it seems like it doesn't know what it wants to be about. Is it about people who want more out of life? Is it about helping the poor and needy? Is it about the environment? Is it about the end of the world? Director and co-writer Alexander Payne tries to tackle all of these topics, and winds up never settling on a central theme.
The film is set in an unspecified time in the near future, when a group of Norwegian scientists discover a way to shrink physical matter into five inch tall versions of themselves. Their hope is that by shrinking people, they can reduce the carbon footprint, make less waste, conserve food and help with climate change. In their smaller form, humans will not require so much. Within a few years, "downsizing" has started to catch on, and tiny gated communities begin to pop up which house the people who have decided to go through the shrinking process. There is some tension as well, as we see TV interviews where people argue that downsizing is also hurting the US economy and market, and there is also some animosity between regular people and those who have shrunk. This could have possibly led to some intriguing views on social status, but they are pretty much ignored as soon as they are introduced.
An occupational physical therapist and everyman named Paul (Matt Damon) and his sweetly bland wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) start to wonder if they should "go small" when it turns out an old friend from high school named Dave (Jason Sudeikis) has been shrunk. Dave proclaims to Paul that his wife and him have never been happier since undergoing the process, and that they live like kings in their tiny downsized community called Leisureland, which is made up of numerous dollhouse-sized mansions, and the finest restaurants and shopping. Paul and Audrey decide to undergo the process themselves after listening to a lecture from a married couple who have already downsized (Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern), and after they learn about the tax credit incentives the government is handing out to those who choose to go small
The process of downsizing is described in detail, and is probably the best and most imaginative moments in the film. All gold teeth and fillings must be removed before the process takes place, and all body hair must be shaved off. The way that the screenplay creates a logical way to explain its shrinking process shows just how well Payne and fellow screenwriter Jim Taylor (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry
) thought this through. But once the process is complete, and Paul has been shrunk, the movie slowly but steadily derails until there is little left of interest. When Paul awakens from the downsizing process, he learns that Audrey backed out at the last minute, and did not go through with it. Now he must explore the tiny world of Lesiureland alone, which is the movie's first big mistake. The problem lies with Paul himself, who never comes across as a very interesting character. He leads a fairly mundane life, and after he shrinks himself, his life remains mundane, so there's little reason for the audience to want to follow him in the first place.
Paul does try to fit in with his new neighbors in Lesiureland, all of whom seem to be living a life of material and drug-infused excess, but his life lacks purpose. That's when he meets a Vietnamese cleaning lady named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chan), whose government forced her to go through the shrinking process, and made headlines when she escaped to America in a cardboard TV box with some other refugees. (She was the only survivor.) Through her, Paul discovers that there is a whole other world right outside the gates of Lesirueland, where miniature immigrants and the poor live in squalor. She takes care of her sick and hungry neighbors, and soon starts asking Paul to help as well. She practically forces Paul into helping her, leading to some funny scenes, but it also leads to another big problem. Chan's performance is much more interesting than Damon's, and I started to feel I would rather be watching a movie focused on her.
It's at this point that Downsizing
stops being a fascinating Sci-Fi story, and becomes a preachy story about the haves and have-nots, as well as about protecting the world around you. Funnily enough, after the extremely interesting opening half that goes into great detail about the downsizing process, the movie pretty much all but forgets about it to the point that it did not need the shrinking angle at all. It kind of feels like a bait and switch, with Payne drawing in the audience with an intriguing angle, and then switching tones. He also completely drops any and all ideas of being a tiny person living in a giant world, so the whole thing seems more and more superfluous as it goes on. This is a movie that starts with a sense of wonder, and slowly devolves into something much more ordinary.
There are few experiences at the movies more disappointing than a film that starts out intriguing, and ends up going against its original promise. I don't so much disagree with Payne's views, but more with how he went about presenting them. If you start with the fantastic and unusual, you'd better give us the fantastic and unusual throughout, is all I'm saying.