Downsizing is an unfortunate film. Supposedly a satire, Alexander Payne’s newest film is little more than a movie about a tiny, flabbergasted Matt Damon. I tried to tell myself that there are people who will enjoy the cute nature of some elements of the film but here’s the thing: while some of this is cute, it rapidly undermines itself, and that isn’t cute.
The premise is that the world’s environmental crisis has reached a critical juncture: either humans reduce, reuse, recycle, or they will die. It’s a world in which any prospect of saving lives will require a radical reinterpretation of human experience. A Norwegian scientist discovered that he could shrink a rodent and obtained funding to perform the same experiment on 36 other people. These people are “the colony.” After five years of testing, the colony was revealed to the world and soon “downsizing” didn’t only mean reducing the size of one’s homestead.
Reducing one’s size comes with benefits including reduced taxes or a tax credit, the potential for a (dollhouse) mansion, and the freedom of knowing you’re saving the Earth. Don’t mind the capitalism that is “needed” to create and maintain communities of 5-inch people. One would think that a complete lifestyle reduction for a group of people would at least have an element of equality. In fact, it’s advertised as such to unwitting optimists, or rich people in need of a new thrill.
Matt Damon plays Paul, an employee of Omaha Steaks’ in-house occupational therapy division, and is married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Without spoiling anything, Audrey has a life changing epiphany that causes her to leave her husband mid-shrink, and he’s suddenly single. Paul is now a mopey sad-sack who gives up the beautiful house he can no longer afford to move into an apartment. His upstairs neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) parties hard enough that eventually Paul must go and confront him. Dusan’s parties are well attended and some tiny-famous people are there, to Paul’s amazement. While there, he takes his first party drug, kisses a woman he doesn’t know, and generally has a good time that he won’t remember.
Things get a bit more interesting from there. Dusan’s housekeepers are stereotypical in the sense that social strata have continued into the tiny world. Dusan has housekeepers he ignores and lets them take his expired medication for their own use. Of course, one of said housekeepers speaks in broken English, but she is more complicated than that. Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) is a former Vietnamese activist with a partial leg amputation, imprisoned, and shrunk against her will. When Paul catches her taking Dusan’s pills, he realizes she is the famous activist he saw on television, and offers to help her with her prosthetic leg. Rather than allow him to help her, she recognizes him as a “doctor” and orders him to come with her to administer the pain medication she has taken to her dying friend. Ngoc lives in a very different neighborhood of the tiny city, separated from the rest by the wall and only accessible by tunnel, and Paul finds that he is rapidly becoming her and everyone else in the town’s quick-fix doctor.
Matt Damon spends far too much of this film in awe, and rather than make you think, it is simply boring. After one point in the movie, I realized that the entire story could’ve been told without the downsizing aspect, and it would remain the same. It’s all a bit absurd, but the hook is advertised as a lightly funny satire. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is up to you, but for me, everything Paul did seemed to necessitate a considerably more interesting character’s involvement. I like that the story maintains that humans will still find ways to be crappy or weird and isn’t particularly sentimental until the end. The satirical aspects of the film aren’t quite enough to offset the bland central character, so most of the film is carried by Ngoc, who sees Paul for exactly the purposeless person he is, taking advantage of his willingness to do things for her. Dusan does the essentially the same thing, but more so finds him amusing in his routines, like a hamster. Downsizing has many opportunities to bite at social and political issues but even though not living up to its potential could be a comment itself, it still renders the film too dependent on one person.
Though I am glad Hong Chau has such a great role, I find the ending, especially her fate, dissatisfying. The stakes of the film are too far outside of the lead character’s actual concerns—even though he, among others, comment on the importance of saving the environment—and as a result the framing and purpose falls flat. Is he feigning concern? What is the intention here? Even though the first 20 or so minutes are supposed to build the world Paul lives in, we spend so much time following him around then, that later on, we’re impatient for Ngoc to appear and the story to continue moving forward, for it to keep on with the humor and political commentary. I found myself wanting much more for her than I did for him. Maybe his weaknesses aren’t supposed to come across the way I saw them, as a giant red flag. But maybe I’m just tired of seeing boring characters and man-babies get the lead role and being told that it’s satire. I’m just not seeing the humor in that.