Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgård, Udo Kier
Struggling Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife (Kristen Wiig) sign up for a radical medical procedure shrinking them down to five inches tall so that they can leave behind their money troubles and live the life of luxury in one of America's miniaturised communities, Leisureland. Herein lies the irony of the title, as swathes of people who enhance their lifestyles by 'getting small', are able to massively upgrade their existence and live in the kind of comfort that they have long desired. It is a topical and evocative tale of modern materialism with a message which hits hard, but only narrowly avoids being derailed by a poorly constructed story and an ill-defined tone.
From the outset, Downsizing is slow and confused, and a dire lack of momentum is sorely evident during the film's opening 20 minutes. In its defence, it does have a lot to fit in, but the story's set up would benefit from some rigorous streamlining. Once the story finally begins to build some momentum or begins to form any kind of shape, the plot-line jumps forward, often by many years. Huge leaps into the future are fine, with other films including them in their narratives to great effect (think Bicentennial Man, 1999), but Downsizing fails to round off each part of the story in a neat chapter before making the jump, dampening all the film's drive and leaving it feeling amorphous. Even without these time jumps, the story seems to change direction multiple times, so much so that the film's beginning feels completely detached from its end.
Much like its structure, Downsizing's tone can also be unclear. It often seems unsure of what film it wants to be, sitting awkwardly in between comedy and drama, not being enough of either for it to feel like a nicely blended amalgamation. It's not overtly funny enough for the former, nor is it emotionally rich enough for the later, with the occasional moments of emotional depth feeling awkwardly placed within the typically impersonal plot-line.
Luckily, Downsizing has managed to find one genre within which it can comfortably sit... science-fiction. Much like some of the best of this sprawling genre, Downsizing is astutely topical. It seems to have a dual message, with one of these piggybacking the other halfway through the film. At its core, Downsizing is a brave statement about the materialism of modern humans, and how this First World obsession with purchasable goods is slowly killing the planet. It is a remarkably keen look at the realities of global warming, and the sacrifices which can and should be made in order to keep the Earth habitable for human life - and whether or not the time for those sacrifices has come and gone. It's a statement which is well made for the most part, but is only half made, with the film lacking a final point at the end, without posing a question or providing food for thought.
Downsizing also shines a light on the ever-widening cultural and class divide in the United States of America. Our first visit to 'Leisureland' invites us to explore predominantly white neighbourhoods populated with 'colossal' mansions filled with designer clothes and furniture and alcohol. All seems well as a life in Leisureland is a life without work, without financial strain and without stress, where the best brands in the world are a fraction of the price and you are free to enjoy the life of luxury you always imagined. As time passes, however, the more unpleasant realities of the world are revealed, as the ethnic minorities begin to appear as the cleaners and maintainers of this miniaturised paradise before returning to their far more modest homes on the very edge of the city. It shrewdly mimics the cultural disparity found in many America cities, boldly exhibiting the unpleasant truth that a comfortable life does not come without a price. Downsizing is a film that wants to say a lot and does a fairly decent job of getting everything off of its chest.
Visually, Downsizing is wonderfully inventive and convincing, combining the worlds of big and small with some fantastic special effects. The film brilliantly explores the logistics and possibilities of a miniaturised life, both on an individual level and a societal one. It offers the viewers a real opportunity to nerd out, taking us on a tour all the way through the scientific procedure on 'getting small' and offering a huge amount of detail (think Jurassic Park, 1994). Science fiction which is well thought-out is undeniably the best, and some serious thought has evidently gone into the creation of the film.
Damon is only good as the likeable but forgettable Paul Safranek but is never really given a chance to shine. Opportunities to identify with him are limited, and so he serves as little more than a window through which we can visit and explore the miniaturised town or Leisureland, making his various decisions throughout the film rather difficult to understand or relate to. Waltz is hugely dislikable as Paul's partying neighbour Dusan, as it his friend Joris, played by Udo Kier, and so Paul's growing friendship with them is similarly difficult to understand. Jason Sudekis and Kristen Wigg's contributions are so fleeting it's a wonder why they bothered, and more from them may have helped avoid the detachment between the film's first and final acts.
Hong Chau is perhaps the most notable member of the cast, submitting a fiery performance as Ngoc and acting as the face of Downsizing's statement on America's cultural division. She is certainly one of the more complex characters, one who's motivations are far easier to follow, but she again feels stifled and only narrowly avoids being little more than a love interest for Paul.
Downsizing is without a doubt a hugely interesting and inventive film which highlights a number of pressing issues within a remarkably unique context. What this film lacks, however, is entertainment. The visual novelty of the film wears off fairly quickly and is not compensated for by energetic and fluid storyline. It's not enough to mute the film's lesson, but such an important message deserves a far more robust vehicle for its delivery.
In one line: Downsizing is an inventive and topical warning about First World materialism, but one which requires more structure and more energy in order to do its message justice.