Alexander Payne, who has made so many great films, such as “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” drops the ball with his science fiction flop “Downsizing,” about a process that shrinks humans to five inches tall. This overly long film, starring Matt Damon, tries to make an outrageous premise believable by making it boring, and only succeeds with the latter.
The drag is felt immediately, as a lengthy explanation shows us people-shrinking was developed to be an environmental solution, that the only way to truly reduce our carbon footprint is to reduce people themselves. Soon, however, the shrinking fad catches on as a way to live large with far less money. What was ostensibly a sacrifice to help the planet soon becomes the latest consumerist grail, and the satire when Paul Safranek (Damon) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), visit a tiny planned community called Leisureland to think about downsizing and moving there, is hilarious and disturbing.
Paul and Audrey are frustrated because they don’t make enough money to buy a bigger house, but in Leisureland, tiny residents live in opulent dollhouse-sized mansions, affordable because of their scale. Spokesperson Laura Dern wows the breathless crowd when she shows them all the diamond jewelry she can easily afford, because of their comparatively minuscule size.
When Paul and Audrey decide to take the plunge to downsize, the film does a good job of emphasizing the seriousness of the situation, and the process is shown in visceral and prolonged detail. The movie verged on frightening at times, but settled for being unsettling.
Despite the attention to detail of some segments of the film, it manages to fail the science fiction test of commitment to its invented world, where the arbitrary rules of the fictional universe must be rigorously applied in order to be convincing. But this was another area where “Downsizing” fell flat, and long stretches of the film seemed to fall out of their existence in the make-believe tiny land.
Eventually this comedy about scale and perspective tries to teach us something about perspective, but it’s so dull that the message is unwelcome when it finally arrives. As timid as its “everyman” star, this film is mercifully enlivened about halfway through when Paul, enduring circumstances in Leisureland he didn’t plan for, meets a brave and resourceful Vietnamese woman who opens his eyes to the realities of this alleged good life. Actress Hong Chau steals the show as a strident but capable woman whose journey shows that even in this idealized, planned community, familiar struggles emerge, and humans deal with the same problems no matter what their size.
But goodness, it takes forever to get there. Perhaps the shrinking formula would be best applied to the runtime. There are so many missed opportunities in “Downsizing.” Sometimes the bleakness rivals another near-future social dystopia from recent years, “The Lobster,” but where that film would have doubled, tripled or quadrupled down on the darkness, “Downsizing” instead meanders away from the edge.
I was wooed to this film by the promise of tiny people and their miniature accessories, and I paid a price of over two hours of wasted casting potential, wasted concept potential and mostly wasted time.
Writer and director Alexander Payne has created such memorable films from mundane, realistic, recognizable characters and situations, and his vision simply did not survive the trip to science fiction. This is a film for Spike Jonze to tackle; the forced quirkiness is not a good look for Payne. His best moments focus on the little things, but ironically this film tries too hard to literally be about just that, and loses its identity in the process.
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