Movie trailers typically do a good job of letting you know what you’re walking into, but, like Suburbicon (coincidentally another Matt Damon project), Downsizing was one where we never quite got a feel for what type of film it was going to be. Now, after watching it, we can appreciate what a tall task the makers of said trailer had.
In an effort to combat the planet’s rising population and dwindling resources, scientists establish a way to dramatically reduce the size of objects, including people, with the idea that a smaller populous will consume and pollute much less. While that was science’s reason for it, the free market soon finds another use as money goes much further, allowing everyday people to live a life of luxury once small.
Faced with financial pressures, Paul (Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) make the decision to undergo the irreversible procedure and take up residence in Leisureland. When Paul awakens, however, he learns that Audrey backed out at the last moment, leaving him alone and without the money necessary to retire.
As Paul struggles to adjust he befriends his neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), which allows him to meet Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese woman that lost a leg after being illegally shrunken by her government for political reasons. As the two become close, Ngoc’s kindness to others gives Paul a purpose he’d been lacking, but is it all happening too late…
While we mourn the apparent loss of “action hero Matt Damon” — even the last Bourne film wasn’t particularly memorable — “all-around good egg Matt Damon” still has some mileage. His ability to transition from comedic to serious moments helps keep the movie afloat as it seemingly bounces between genres. Minus Damon’s presence and likability, things could’ve gone off the rails.
Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) deserves credit for capably navigating the many tonal shifts as well. What initially appears poised to be a straight comedy goes another direction entirely as things get rolling, and he at least manages to keep the two-plus-hour ride an interesting one. The idea itself is also unique with a fairly straightforward message permeating throughout: help each other.
Although Payne does an admirable job of piecing the movie together, Downsizing does have something of an identity crisis. The presence of Wiig and Jason Sudeikis, who barely has more than a cameo, suggest the lighter moments were meant to be funnier than they are, and we kept waiting for Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern to reappear after a short orientation spoof (spoiler: they never did).
We never warmed to Hong Chau’s character. The way she treats Damon is maybe supposed to be humorous, but it came across as demanding and entitled. Here’s a guy trying to do a nice thing for her, and she takes total advantage of him. She’s sort of presented as clueless (due to the language barrier), essentially inviting herself on a trip Dusan uses to get Paul away from her. There’s just something very abrasive about her.
There are too many half-baked ideas in Downsizing with potentially interesting sub-topics, like the effect of people shrinking cutting away at demand and hurting the economy or whether the small should continue to share the same voting rights, introduced and summarily dropped. Why add the social commentary if you’re going to continually brush it aside?
THE BONUS FEATURES
Roughly an hour of supplemental materials can be found here stretched across six pretty standard featurettes. Of the group, the 14-minute A Visual Journey is the most interesting and substantive, delving deeper into the film’s production design. If you love Matt Damon the feature about how everybody loves Matt Damon should be up your alley.
Downsizing is an odd duck. It has some good ideas and the trappings of a social satire / dark comedy, but it pulls itself in too many directions and ends up being less than the sum of its parts despite mostly strong performances from its cast.