Film Review: Alexander Payne thinks a bit too big with Downsizing (USA, 2017)

There is no escaping a society defined by over-consumption, over-population, excessive stress and glaring inequality as Alexander Payne delivers a big message with a small scale, working his surrealist charm and far-flung sense of adventure into Downsizing. The long-gestating project, directed by Payne and written with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, is a grand, and at times unfocused, tale that has a lot to say but very little time to say it.

Perhaps the biggest mark against Downsizing is it’s ambition, reaching far beyond the notion of time constraints with ill-advised deviations, sidetracks leading to tangents that, although highly entertaining, dilute the film’s otherwise soulful approach to social satire. It’s all sparked by the endlessly interesting sci-fi premise of “downsizing”, a process by which Norwegian scientists have found a way to safely shrink people to about roughly five inches in height. Rick Moranis is nowhere to be seen, but everyman go-to Matt Damon is, playing the lead role as occupational physical therapist Paul Safranek: a painfully average character living a painfully average life.

The newly discovered method of shrinking people is thoughtfully pushed as a solution to some of the biggest issues plaguing both the individual and the world at large. Environmental issues are helped by a literal reduction in human footprint, overpopulation issues are reversed each and every time a “normal” sized human decides to “go small”, and financial burdens are lessened in downsized communities since an average bank account goes a long, long way. The scientists championed Downsizing because of the first two reasons; it took off because of the last.

That kind of selfishness isn’t lost on Paul, who sees a way out of life’s problems with downsizing once exposed to it through an old friend who chose to “go small”. He quickly decides to go through with it, but Paul’s wife (Kristen Wiig) develops cold feet at the very last second, leaving him to go it alone in this dollhouse-like life.

The strength here is just how much thought Payne and Taylor have put into the process of Downsizing and how the regular-sized world accommodates tiny humans. This is far beyond running into giant ants or treating lawnmowers as natural disasters; details of the whole process and the reactions to it are well thought out and witty, propelling Paul into an eccentric world that’s ultimately just like the one he was trying to escape in the first place.

Inequality still exists, greed still weighs humanity down, and as for the environment, well doomsday will happen one way or the other. Even in Leisure Land, the “small” community in which Paul resides, the issues plaguing humankind have only downsized to scale. And that gives Payne ample opportunity to distort and poke fun at the new ways this supposed miracle achivement is being used to separate the haves and have-nots.

There is little point in Paul’s Eurotrash neighbourds Dusan (Christoph Waltz in very fine form) and Joris (Udo Kier), instead the most effective vessel for all this small-scale mayhem is Ngoc Lan (scene-stealer Hong Chau), a fiery Vietnamese woman who migrated to Leisure Land in a television set. There’s something here about America’s obsession with foreign-made products juxtaposed against their resistance to immigration, but that’s largely unexplored in favour of the sheer entertainment Lan’s character brings to the screen.

And that’s really where Downsizing falls short, as successfully satirical and sentimental it is. It’s a very entertaining film, but Payne attempts to juggle too many ideas at once and in doing so fumbles with many of them, dropping fascinating developments in order to pick up the next thread and keep Paul spinning on an unlikely adventure that has him travelling outside of Leisure Land, finding romance, and embracing reality, all across numerous time jumps. Ironically, this is also where the film’s biggest pleasures lie: in a beautiful mess of unlikely situations and the unavoidable trappings of modern life, rendered with sharp humour and visual wonder. Perhaps this should have been a television miniseries.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Downsizing will be released on Boxing Day.