Review: "Downsizing" Has Big Ideas, But Delivers Little Results

Dec 21, 2017

Imagine a world in which one dollar could buy one thousand dollars’ worth of merchandise. Picture yourself in a community in which you only went to work when you felt like it. Imagine having all the amenities you desired at your fingertips, or just around the corner.

What’s the catch? You have to be five inches tall. 


To Paul, the central figure of director Alexander Payne’s "Downsizing," that sounds like a pretty sweet deal. He once dreamed of being a surgeon; now, he treats repetitive stress injuries instead. So he’s ready and willing to take a shot at rebooting his life, and his stressed-out wife, Audrey, is eager to make a change, too.

The small-scale living is part of a plan to conserve precious resources in a slightly futuristic society that’s threatened by global warming and running low on everything it seems, except wacky ideas. Paul, played by the ever-likable Matt Damon, believes by getting smaller he may somehow become a bigger man.

But, as most of us have learned by now, many enticing offers have unexpected strings attached. So it is, too, with "Downsizing," which begins as a topical, clever satire. Unfortunately, once our hero makes his transition to Pocket-Size Paul, the laughs and the lightness shrink as well. Payne, who has previously done a masterful job of balancing humor, human interest and pathos in movies like "Nebraska," "About Schmidt," "The Descendants," and "Sideways," shows none of that flair here. 

"Downsizing" is a screenplay that cries out for a few more rewrites, a few extra drafts. Even though Payne has revealed he began writing this film in 2006, far too much of the movie seems half-baked or unpolished. He’s shooting for a contemporary sort of Frank Capra or Preston Sturges comedy with a message – think of "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" or "Sullivan's Travels" — with perhaps a couple of Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze twists thrown in for good measure.

The result, however, seems tepid and meandering, unable to decide what it wants to be. To his credit, Payne does not go down the predictable path of placing the diminutive Paul in scary or perilous situations, as in the 1950s sci-fi classic "The Incredible Shrinking Man,"  nor does he milk the miniaturization process for goofy gags, as in Lily Tomlin’s "The Incredible Shrinking Woman."

What does Payne do instead? He and co-writer Jim Taylor opt for occasionally woefully heavy-handed dramedy. Kristen Wiig, who has some amusing moments as Paul’s spouse, disappears from the movie early on to clear the way for a plodding, thoroughly unconvincing romance between the increasingly disillusioned Paul and Ngoc Lan, a Vietnamese former dissident who was forcibly “downsized” and put to work as a cleaning lady in Paul’s plush neighborhood.

She is played by Hong Chau, speaking in often shrill, fractured English, and creating a character that is frequently more grating than she is endearing. Paul initially connects with Ngoc Lan when he uses his occupational skill to adjust the uncomfortable prosthetic leg she wears. That makes sense, but the rest of their relationship evolves in a contrived way as Paul is shocked – shocked! – to realize that his pampered life is only made possible by the exploitation of overworked, under-paid minorities stuck in the slums. 

It also doesn’t help that there is no discernible chemistry between Damon and Hong. While Damon makes the most of an under-written, largely deadpan role, Christoph Waltz strides in and steals the show as Paul’s sleazy, party-hearty neighbor, an import/export dealer who can get his grubby hands on almost anything.

Waltz is a shot of adrenalin in a movie desperately in need of just that, and it is in his scenes that "Downsizing" finally seems to find a rhythm and a sense of fun. The rest of the movie is a classic case of big ideas, small results.