While no one would ever say that Alexander Payne is lacking ambition, he has not made a giant film filled with show stopping set pieces or had a plot that could be described as “high concept.” Until Downsizing that is, a feature which has both, but feels scattered all over the place. There’s plenty to grasp onto and attempt to enjoy, even as the film may actively be attempting to hold the audience at arm’s length. One thing is for sure, it’s a film likely to start many discussions, just not all necessarily in a positive light.
Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, charming but aloof) is just an average guy. With a little more work he may have become a great doctor, or had a life that amounted to something. When his mother got sick 2 years into his residency, he put his life on pause, forgetting to reset things when she passed. Stuck as occupational therapist at Omaha Steak Company, he longs to give his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), a better life. Then, as luck should have it, opportunity comes calling at his high school reunion.
His old buddy, Dave (Jason Sudeikis) has undergone the act of “downsizing”, which sees an individual shrunk down to a few inches tall. The initial idea behind the process is that by making people smaller they would consume less, thereby helping the environment and giving earth a longer lifespan. Dave though informs Paul that “getting small” is more about “saving yourself” than what the scientists would have you believe, a bit of hokum the movie unfortunately starts to wallow in, rather aggressively, as time goes on.
Feeling that “downsizing” is the only way to make some form of life worth living (not to mention becoming millionaires in the process) the Safranek’s enter Leisureland (one of many small communities) as the film starts to get larger in scope, but also more convoluted than it needs to be. Jokes aplenty are heaped at the screen and this estate driven eco-world is laid out, with its series of chain restaurants, countless tennis & gold courts, not to mentioned rideshare cars. It all feels slightly plasticine and too good to be true, which it is of course. Exposing the facade underneath is just one of the stumbles Payne & long time co-writer Jim Taylor never can recover from.
Partially contributing to this issue is filling the cast with recognizable faces, yet gives them nothing to do. Wigg, Sudeikis, and even character actor Margo Martindale get short shrift. In the end it makes sense, though losing such fine actors causes the “fun” factor to deflate. It’s Christoph Waltz who receives the majority of the secondary screen time, as Paul’s extravagant neighbor, Dusan (pronounced Douche-an). He’s essential to the moving of the plot, though one cannot help but feel as if even this character is merely half-realized. His job seems to bring up moral questions in the world of the “small”, only to be hand waived away moments later.
That in and of itself leads to a bigger distraction Downsizing is never able to plant a steady foot into: the tone. So, much is larger than life or semi-satirical that it starts to feel more like Idiocracy, than a film directed by Payne. What social commentary there is about consumerism or people adopting quickly to new trends without thinking, is just surface level. Whatseems to bother Payne, as the 3rd act take a questionably dark turn (debatable even), is more of an environmental quandary. Shifts in focus like this occur 4 to 5 different times, causing unease, or at least easy disconnect. Considering the ambitiousness of the project, it can be forgiven, at least on principle, but there’s never a clear cut point where it can recover.
There’s a strange feeling that if a movie such as this were made on a smaller budget, at a smaller studio, then it may have lead to a better film in the process. Something about it feels off, or at the very leasy, tinkered with. Jokes land, performances are solid, an astonishing world is explored that raises a series of complex yet unanswered questions. The pieces of the puzzle all get laid out and somehow in the execution a rather pedestrian product takes its place. Downsizing is not outright bad, it just feel half-baked. That which it may have once aspired to be, remains just out of reach. What it does excel at is minor wonder. Payne shows that when he shoots for the rafters, he can still capture minor beauty in the humanity of the average person. Possibly even proving that big whiffs can lead to small victories.