When I first learned about “Downsizing”, I was surprised that Alexander Payne was attached to direct. His two previous films, “The Descendants” and “Nebraska”, were so grounded in real life events. A sci-fi fantasy about a guy who becomes really, really small seemed like a major departure for Payne.
Because of the premise and marketing, I was expecting a light, quirky comedy – essentially “Honey, I Shrunk Matt Damon”. But this isn’t what “Downsizing” is about at all. Yes, Damon’s character does shrink down to .0364% of his regular size – but once that takes place, the absurdity ends and the film takes-on a surprisingly serious tone.
Essentially, “Downsizing” is about Big Picture stuff: one’s purpose in life and the existence and extinction of the human race: some pretty deep material. The complex screenplay, by Payne and Jim Taylor (who won an Oscar for “Sideways”), is successful for a couple of reasons: it treats the “shrinking” concept seriously, flushing out all the details, and it elevates this seemingly sitcom-esque idea to unexpected levels.
However, an allegory about a small man trying to do what he thinks is right for the world should provide a major impact, and “Downsizing” just doesn’t quite get there. Damon’s Paul is a timid, mild-mannered, nice guy, who goes through plenty of adventures but never really evolves. This results in a mostly one-note, monotone experience.
After scientists devise a way for humans to successfully shrink down to less than 5 inches and survive, governments of the world set-up “downsizing” colonies, where their small citizens can live. The advantages to this radical lifestyle are plenty. Money goes a lot further when you’re small, so people with a modest amount of savings can live like kings. And all these smaller footprints mean less of a carbon footprint on the Earth – helping cut-down on overpopulation, global warming and the deletion of natural resources. At least that’s the pitch.
Frustrated with his life, Paul and his wife (Kristen Wiig) decide to “downsize”. But things don’t go quite as planned. Visually, the scenes depicting the shrinking process and the small vs. large perspective are done well. Obviously, this is where most the film’s humor is generated.
At 2 hours and 15 minutes, “Downsizing” isn’t small in length. The middle section, with Paul adjusting to his new “mini” lifestyle, is especially slow. However, when Paul meets the Vietnamese cleaning lady of his upstairs neighbor (played by Christoph Waltz), things take a much-needed turn. Actress Hong Chau is mesmerizing in this one-of-a-kind role. The best reason to see “Downsizing” is for this breakthrough, nomination-worthy performance.
Outside of Chau, this movie is going to be a tough sell to audiences. Paramount is currently marketing it as a fun adventure comedy, which it is not. “Downsizing” is a unique cinematic experience, definitely the most niche movie of the year, and certainly worth checking-out. And I recommend doing so on the big screen and not on a tiny electronic device – for obvious reasons.