Review: Downsizing (2017)

Downsizing

Rating

Director

Alexander Payne

Screenplay

Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor

Length

2h 15m

Starring

Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgard, Ingjerd Egeberg, Udo Kier, Soren Pilmark, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Jayne Houdyshell, Phil Reeves, James Van Der Beek

MPAA Rating

R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.

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Review

If you had the opportunity to turn your meager savings into a vast fortune simply by agreeing to permanently shrink yourself to a couple of inches tall and then live out your life in a self-contained community, would you do it? Downsizing answers that morally complex question while tossing in several more fascinating sociopolitical queries for the ride.

Alexander Payne has made some fascinating comedies across his career, but Downsizing might be his most even-handed, even if it is his most creative one. The story takes place in the near-future where society’s resources are dwindling and scientists are attempting to find a way to save the planet. When they stumble upon a miniaturization process that reduces biological lifeforms to a fraction of the size, new communities spring up to house them.

Downsizing stars Matt Damon as the down-on-his-luck occupational therapist whose financial situation is dire, which leads he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) to agree to convert their worldly possessions into currency in order to downsize and move into a world where their paltry existence translates into abundant riches. That security is short lived and soon Damon is on his own, forced to work at a call center and contend with a raucous upstairs neighbor before meeting a dissident (Hong Chau) forced to downsize by a tyrannical foreign regime.

There are a lot of broad and complex ideas floating around Downsizing and Payne struggles to settle on which narrative is most compelling. The first half of the film is sometimes a slog, dragging its beats out to unnecessary lengths, frustrating the curious audience in the process. We want to know what this process of downsizing is all about, but we get almost professorial detail on the subject making this feel like a college instruction course rather than a feature film.

Damon is an adequate vessel for the loser at the center of the story, his perpetually defeated character attempting to find some ground onto which he can safely stand without having the rug pulled out from under him one last time.

That said, it’s really Chau who is the film’s truest asset. Arriving around the half-way point, Chau’s character is a breath of fresh air in a stilted, even if fascinating, narrative. Everything comes alive with her arrival and the film finally starts moving at a steady and energized pace. She plays this character on a foundation of broad stereotypes, but gives those stereotypes more depth and passion than one would expect. It’s a nuanced portrayal that is far more than the simplistic foundation on which it is built.

Along for the ride and giving us very little new depth in character are Wiig as Damon’s wife; Christoph Waltz as a smuggler who agrees to try and help Damon get ahead in life; Rolf Lassgard as one of the scientists responsible for the miniaturization discovery and also leader of a group of the original subjects of the process; and Jason Sudeikis in his brief appearance as the old friend who eventually helps sell Damon on his plan of action. More exciting than any of these is the incredibly brief cameo by Laura Dern.

This is a film that feels like it’s split between two concepts. The strange idea of shrinking people paired with headier ideas of overpopulation, totalitarianism, and other political concepts. It almost superficially explores the grey areas of scientific advancement while presenting an inventive, if often frustrating, narrative.

Downsizing is a film filled with fascinating visual elements, but also overstuffed with plot details and moral implications. It’s a film that is at once compelling and meandering, bold and derivative, and brilliant and frustrating.

Review Written

August 14, 2018

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