Director : Alexander Payne
Cast : Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård
Genre : Comedy/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2h 15 min
Opens : 11 January 2018
Rating : NC16
In this sci-fi comedy-drama, Matt Damon discovers that it’s a small world after all. And as the song goes, it is indeed a world of laughter, a world of tears, a world of hopes, and a world of fears.
Damon plays occupational therapist Paul Safranek. It is the near-future, and Norwegian scientist Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) has devised a revolutionary procedure known as ‘downsizing’. In a bid to solve the world’s overpopulation crisis, those who sign up for the irreversible procedure are shrunken down to a height of five inches. While downsizing is controversial, it is also touted as helping to save the planet. One’s personal net worth and apparently, quality of life also increases exponentially.
Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) sign up to be downsized, after Paul is convinced by his high school classmate Dave (Jason Sudeikis) who, along with his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe) has become small. Paul and Audrey are set to move into the luxurious small community Leisureland. However, Audrey gets cold feet, and doesn’t go through with the procedure at the last minute, stranding a now-small Paul in Leisureland.
Paul gradually gets accustomed to his new life, and befriends his party animal upstairs neighbour, Serbian businessman Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz). Paul also meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a housecleaner hired by Dusan. Lan Tran is a Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will. As Paul gets to know her better and visits the run-down dormitory tower populated by immigrant workers where Lan Tran stays, his eyes are opened to a world beyond his own. Eventually, considering an earth-shattering development, Paul must make the biggest choice of his life.
Director Alexander Payne, who also cowrote the film with Jim Taylor, is known for comedy-dramas that are slightly quirky but otherwise down-to-earth – films like Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and About Schmidt. Downsizing is his most outlandish effort yet, a sci-fi social satire with a wild premise that promises to tackle big ideas.
The setup works well: the world-building is amusing and well thought-out, and the film makes the concept of downsizing seem plausible within its reality. Textural elements like the Leisureland sales pitch, featuring cameos by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern, work as a riff on American consumerism. There are many delightful visual gags – typically involving everyday objects rendered absurdly large next to the now-tiny characters.
The production design by Stefania Cella is clever and subtly eye-catching. Rolfe Kent’s score is a joy to listen to, and highlights the inherent absurdity of the premise. The societal implications of downsizing and its implementation seem key to the plot at first, but gradually get pushed aside.
The film veers in a direction that seems like the wrong one, squandering its intriguing set-up. Yes, this centres around the Ngoc Lan Tran character, who has become controversial in her own right. While Hong Chau’s performance has been praised, and she was recently nominated for a Golden Globe, it seems that many poor decisions were made in the writing of the character.
Just like elsewhere in the film, the Lan Tran character has great potential – she’s a Vietnamese refugee who was forcibly downsized in prison, then escapes to America as a stowaway. Chau draws on her own past as the child of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ refugees in portraying the character. However, it’s soon clear that Lan Tran is a caricature. She speaks in heavily-accented broken English, and this is treated as inherently funny. Her speech and mannerisms overshadow any complexity the character has.
The dynamic that develops between her and Paul ends up in a disappointing place. As this bond progresses, Lan Tran also takes on the role of ‘ethnic person spirit guide’ to Paul, showing him that there’s a world outside his relatively privileged bubble, and opening his mind. It’s no fault of Chau’s, who has defended the character as multi-faceted and well-written. However, as much as Payne and Taylor get right in the writing of Lan Tran, they make several more missteps.
Paul is hardly compelling, and ends up as little more than another guy in a movie going through a midlife crisis. He’s an ordinary guy placed in an extraordinary circumstance, but the character’s folksy “golly gee, gosh darn” earnestness rings false. While Damon may have been relatable, his recent public reactions to Hollywood scandals have eroded that somewhat. The original casting of Paul Giamatti might have worked better.
Waltz hams it up and is visibly enjoying himself as the aging playboy whose main goal in life is to enjoy himself. The pairing of Waltz and Udo Kier, a fellow European actor often typecast as scary villains, is effective and entertaining. Alas, despite being billed on the poster, Wiig is barely in the film at all.
Downsizing’s reach exceeds its grasp, and while it plants seeds early on that could grow into something fascinating, it seems to bolt in the opposite direction, becoming a story centred around a boring guy and his mundane epiphanies. This reviewer enjoys science fiction in the context of social commentary, but it’s tricky to pull off well. Downsizing makes a few miniscule steps in the right direction, but stumbles before our eyes.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars