After bursting onto the scene with Citizen Ruth in 1996, Alexander Payne has become one of Hollywood’s chief purveyors of movies about mid-life crises. Films like Election and Sideways became staples in every suburban parent’s DVD collection, while his more recent films have elicited decent praise, if less staying power. Armed with his largest budget ever and an interesting sci-fi concept, there was hope that perhaps Payne was entering a new and invigorated phase of his career with his new film Downsizing. While the end result shows moments of promise, it unsurprisingly struggles whenever it focuses on something other than the characters’ mid-life crises.
For the first hour or so, Downsizing is actually quite delightful. We follow cash-strapped couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) as they debate undergoing a new procedure that would shrink themselves, as living in a “small” community gets you a lot more bang for your buck.
At this point, it almost seems like all Payne did was apply a fresh coat of paint to his standard mid-life crisis plot, but as he shows us cable news pundits debating the economic effects of people downsizing, and we are taken on a tour of the luxurious Leisureland “small” community, we see how this technology has been morphed from being a solution to global warming into a way to make people richer. These small touches make it seem like Payne is setting himself up to explore interesting debates about our economy and society by the movie’s end, but are instead just another sign of the film’s wasted potential.
As recent trailers have foolishly spoiled, Audrey backs out of the procedure after Paul has already undergone it, leaving him to live in Leisureland alone. After this happens, the movie seems to operate in 30-minute chunks. First, we follow Paul as he deals with single life and enjoys a neighbour’s party. Then we follow him as he befriends Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau) and sees how poorly the other half lives in Leisureland. Then we’re following the characters as they head to Norway and find that the inventor of downsizing is retreating to an underground bunker because global warming is inevitable. Then we end.
Each of these chunks teases their own questions, but are forgotten about every time the movie shifts its focus. Just when we think that the movie is settling into a groove of examining economic and racial inequality, we are whisked away to a Norwegian vacation that is only concerned with global warming. Not only does this leave the film thematically and tonally confused, but also wastes any momentum that was built up during the well-conceived first hour. These are glaring issues that are surprising to see in a script from someone as seasoned as Payne. One gets the impression that in his excitement he decided to touch on every topic that came to mind instead of focusing one on or two and paying them off.
All of this is a shame, especially because Downsizing exhibits some of the best direction of Payne’s career. Visually, the movie is beautiful, and truly sells the idea of these small communities with some impressive CGI. Regular collaborator Role Kent also turns in arguably his best score, which is surprisingly lush and expressive, a reminder of how music can elevate a drama when directors are not afraid of using it.
For the most part the actors are fine, most of them turning in slight variations of themselves. The exception is breakout star Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan, who takes a character based deeply in stereotypes but imbues it with warmth and humor. She’s one of the movie’s brightest spots, and is one of the few things to keep you engaged by the end. Her lack of an Oscar nomination is a crime.
While it is admirable to see a filmmaker willing to take risks and branch out like this after two decades in the business, Downsizing unfortunately continues the trend in Payne’s filmography of each film having less to say than the last. For casual movie fans, there really isn’t much here to recommend. For fans of the director, it is worth catching only to see the skill he exhibits during the first act and to enjoy Hong Chau’s portrayal of Ngoc Lan. Just make sure to “downsize” your expectations.