I don’t entirely know what to make of Downsizing, Alexander Payne’s new movie. For a guy who’s made his career directing down to earth, slice of life movies like The Descendants and About Schmidt and Nebraska and Sideways, a high concept science fiction-tinged experiment like Downsizing seems like an odd, but possibly exciting choice. Taking place in a world where Norse scientists have discovered the ability to shrink humans down to five inches tall, a breakthrough they believe will solve the world’s overpopulation and over-consumption problems doomed to ruin the environment, the film revolves around Paul (Matt Damon), a small town Nebraska occupational therapist who struggles to make ends meet. He wants to move to a bigger house with his wife (Kristen Wiig), but can’t afford it. A chance meeting with an old high school buddy (Jason Sudeikis) who downsized gives him the idea to do it himself, and after some discussions with his wife, they decide to go along with the procedure, taking advantage of the relative wealth and safety that comes from being exponentially tiny compared to the rest of the world.
It’s a bit of a heady premise, but the first act of Downsizing seems primed to put it right in the wheelhouse of the man who made biting satires like Election and Citizen Ruth, an opportunity to poke at our consumerist culture, suburban sprawl and environmentalism in one tidy little (snicker) package. And it certainly starts out in that direction, with a glitzy, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous community called LeisureLand seeming to offer everything to anyone for little to no downside. So clearly there’s some kind of catch, right? Clearly the movie’s going to uncover some kind of conspiracy or side effects or hidden downside.
Here’s the thing, though. It doesn’t do any of that.
It’s just about Matt Damon living his life. Sure, he’s tiny, but that doesn’t really mean anything in any significant way past the first forty minutes. After that, it’s just an Alexander Payne movie. He has a quirky, vaguely menacing but good-natured European neighbor (Christoph Waltz) who has an equally quirky friend (Udo Kier) with whom he travels the globe. He meets a Vietnamese dissident (Hong Chau) who was downsized against her will and now spends her life cleaning fancy houses while she lives in the slums outside town. Downsizing becomes a very experiential movie, jumping ahead in time as Paul grows closer to the people in his now tiny life. There’s some satire, but it’s remarkably surface level, and it turns into something of a travelogue as Paul searches for meaning and purpose. That’s not automatically a bad thing; the structure of Downsizing doesn’t presuppose its problems, but it’s remarkable just how strange and disjointed the film feels, never finding anything even remotely resembling sure footing.
The best way to describe just how things play out would be to imagine a situation where four different writers made 35 minute spec scripts on the downsizing concept, and then Payne came along and placed them one after another and called it a movie. Characters come and go with little consequence, setting up what should be major relationships that fade into the background almost immediately. I’m sure Payne would chalk this up to how life works, how relationships come and go but our experience is the constant, but that doesn’t make for a satisfying film. It doesn’t help that the nature of Damon’s character makes him into a bit of an uninspiring protagonist. He’s a canvas to be painted upon. There’s no excitement.
Any hope that Payne would be able to apply his relaxed slice of life approach to a more heady science fiction sort of movie has been left at the door of Downsizing, a film not nearly interested enough in its own premise to see itself through. There’s some life to be found, predominantly from Paul’s entourage. Waltz is very...well...Christoph Waltz-like, Udo Kier gets to play around with his famously intimidating exterior, and Hong Chau probably comes out of this film the rosiest, but it never comes close to amounting to anything. Downsizing is an oddity at best and maddening at worst, a giant misstep for a director of Alexander Payne’s quality and track record.