****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 1.75 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT. No need to ever see this movie.
Downsizing, written and directed by Alexander Payne, is the story of Paul Safranek, a midwestern physical therapist who chooses to undergo a new procedure that will shrink him down to being only five inches tall in order to start a new life in an experimental, eco-friendly mini-world. The film stars Matt Damon with supporting performances from Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau and Kristen Wiig.
Downsizing is one of those movies that is rife with possibilities, but in execution ends up being a disaster. Alexander Payne can be hit or miss for me as a director, for instance I loved About Schmidt, and was lukewarm about Sideways and Nebraska and loathed The Descendants. Downsizing falls into the frustrating The Descendants category in the Alexander Payne catalogue for me.
What is so troubling about Downsizing is that the original idea, about shrinking people down in order save the environment, is bursting with a myriad of dramatic potential and yet not only does Payne not realize these possibilities, he seems to be entirely oblivious of them. Payne suffocates the creative prospects of the premise in its crib and instead churns out a very blasé, bland and boring product that is bungled from start to finish.
While Downsizing portends to be an important "issues" film, the movie labors under the strain of its own delusional sense of self-importance. The film never actually tackles any difficult subjects, only strikes a concerned pose and then walks away. Like a eunuch in a whorehouse, Payne only seems to be vaguely aware of what he is missing.
For instance, the first thing that comes to mind for me is the idea that if people shrink themselves, they immediately become vulnerable to the Tyranny of the Big. Once people are shrunk, Big people could crush little people and their worlds with little effort at all. The result of that would be that little people become entirely reliant on the kindness of the big for their survival. To me it would be fascinating to investigate in Downsizing the idea of people choosing to make themselves weaker and subservient to a giant class of humans, to me that sounds like a metaphor for people's relationship with Big Tech like Facebook, and their acquiescence to massive surveillance programs. To explore the theme of "if you aren't doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide", would be an interesting one, but Payne never even contemplates it.
The Tyranny of the Big theme also could've have been used to explore political issues staring all of us in the face…like American empire, or authoritarianism rising across the globe. But Payne chooses to make a limp non-point by having the "shrinking" technology used by only one government for nefarious reasons…that government…Vietnam. A plot point in the movie is that Vietnam, of all countries, shrinks a group of protestors. Why Vietnam? Of all the countries you could use to show authoritarianism in the world you choose Vietnam?
The reality is that Payne chose Vietnam because it is a safe choice, not because it is a relevant or interesting one. Vietnam is a "communist" country, and Payne knew he'd get no pushback from anyone, especially here in America, by attacking them. If Payne had any balls…which it is very obvious he doesn't, he would've used China instead of Vietnam. Calling out China as authoritarian by having a storyline where they "shrink" some Tibetan human rights protestors would be a gutsy and dramatically interesting thing to do, but Payne would never do that because China is a market where he wants his movie to play and make money. So China is a no go. The U.S. is another no go for the same obvious reason, calling out American empire is a non-starter for a milquetoast filmmaker like Payne. How about Israel? Why not have Israel "shrink" down Palestinians protestors in order to be able to reduce Palestinians in the West Bank to living in a shoe box so Israeli's can take even more of their land? Payne would never, ever, ever do that because…well…you and I both know why that would never happen.
The lack of testicular fortitude on the part of the director is not the only issue with the film. Downsizing suffers from some of the most basic of filmmaking and storytelling errors imaginable. For instance, there is scene near the end of the film where a bible is used as a critical dramatic device, the problem with that, is that is literally the first time that bible has ever appeared or been mentioned in the entire film…it is a bizarre and glaring bit of amateurish filmmaking. Structurally the film is no better, as the movie is so fundamentally flawed it teeters the whole time you watch it until it ultimately collapses onto itself.
The acting is also uneven and disconnected as well. Matt Damon is a fine actor, but he never feels genuinely connected to the material or the character and instead appears to be going through the movie star motions. I read that Paul Giamatti was originally supposed to play the lead role but for some reason was replaced by Damon. I think Giamatti would have been a far superior choice to embody the sad sack character of Paul Safranek.
Christoph Waltz is an actor I admire, but his character is so poorly written he is entirely incoherent. What Waltz's Dusan Mirkovic is even doing in the film is beyond me, and it seems, beyond him as well.
Hong Chau's character Ngoc Lan Tran, is difficult to watch. Chau does a good job acting, in fact she delivers a flawless monologue at a dining room table that is worth seeing, but her pidgin english is unbearable and the character feels more like comic relief than a fully fledged human being. Having an Asian character speaking pidgin English used as comedy comes across as terribly tone deaf and at best uncomfortable, and at worst incredibly racist.
Downsizing's running time is two hours and fifteen minutes, yet the movie feels unconscionably much longer. By the time the final act of the movie begins I could not have cared less about any of the characters involved at all. Everything seemed forced and manufactured and totally devoid of any genuine human emotion or understanding.
Downsizing boasts a top-notch cast and an intriguing premise but fails to properly utilize either of those things. Alexander Payne's failures as a director and writer scuttle what could have been a truly fascinating ship, and instead we are reduced to watching the equivalent of no one of interest floating on a dingy in a kiddy pool.
Downsizing is so insignificant and unremarkable that even though I saw it for free while sitting in my living room, I still almost got up and walked out. The only thing Downsizing did was downsize my patience for this stupid movie…oh and hopefully it also downsized Alexander Payne's cache in the film industry. My recommendation is that you skip Downsizing, there is absolutely no need whatsoever for you to see this film at anytime or anyplace. If you stumble across it on cable late one night, turn the television off and go watch a dog take a dump on a dollhouse, it will be time better spent than watching this miniature mess.