It had to happen sometime, I suppose. After adoring five of director Alexander Payne’s six previous films (and enjoying the sixth while not falling in love with it), I’m sorry to report that he’s finally come up with a clunker in Downsizing, his first tentative foray into science fiction–or perhaps we should call it speculative fiction with a satirical slant. Either way, a great premise and setup is wasted after the movie’s first act, as the story veers into something else entirely and gets lost in muddled themes, inconsistent performances, and dropped opportunities.
As Downsizing (which Payne co-wrote with frequent partner Jim Taylor) opens, a group of Norwegian scientists have discovered a way to miniaturize living beings–including humans. The world then begins a 200-year plan of transitioning almost everyone to five inches in height as a way to ease overpopulation and save the world’s increasingly fragile environment, with the downsized moving into specially constructed and seemingly perfect little communities. One incentive is that money goes much further when you live smaller, which tips the scales for struggling Omaha couple Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), who decide to go through with the irreversible process.
There are so many possibilities inherent in this concept, both as serious science fiction and caustic social commentary, but Payne and Taylor never seem to decide which way they want to take it. Through a series of unforeseen events, Paul ends up on his own in Leisureland, the tiny planned community where he and Audrey initially purchased a mansion but where Paul ends up in a drab one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise (so to speak). He’s also given up his job as an occupational therapist to do phone sales, and we begin to realize that life–unfulfilled, messy, and not going the way you thought it would–is pretty much the same whether you’re the size of a pen or the height of an average white male.
After more or less abandoning the ramifications of the shrinking process and how the outside world sees it, I thought Payne was going to go a little more into his comfort zone and peer into the personal foibles of his downsized community and its denizens. But the movie takes another turn, as Paul meets up first with a pair of dissolute European party people (Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, alternating between funny and bored), and then falls in with Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a former Vietnamese activist who was shrunken by her government as punishment and now cleans houses in Leisureland. Through her, Paul discovers things about Leisureland he didn’t know, while finding perhaps some fulfillment in assisting Ngoc as she helps the community’s less fortunate residents.
Chau brings a needed spark of life to Downsizing at this point, since Damon is more or less morose and brooding throughout, although her character walks a thin, treacherous line between saint and stereotype. She’s irritating at first, grows more endearing, but is ultimately as frustrating as the rest of the movie, which takes one final detour in its final third into a heavy-handed mush of apocalyptic New Agey “spirituality” that stops the movie dead in its tracks and finally sinks it.
This is the second movie in less than six months (the other being the dreadful Suburbicon) in which Damon plays an “everyman” character who’s less a real person and more a mouthpiece for curdling white male privilege and cluelessness. Like that earlier misfire, the actor is also buried here under one overbearing message after another, with the movie hammering home its themes and unfortunately using Damon as the nail. Time for him to play a comic book villain (and yes, that’s a nod to his recent hilarious cameo in a superhero movie) or something equally outside the box for him, where he won’t have the weight of the world on his broad but tiring shoulders.
But no one really escapes this mess unscathed, least of all Payne and Taylor. While they’ve been brilliant before at incisively probing deeply flawed characters (Sideways) and dissecting microcosms of modern society (Election, pretty much a perfect movie), they can’t decide what to do with their characters here and find themselves stumped when exploring a literal microcosm of contemporary American life. While the movie is well-designed in its depiction of its near-future “big” world, the laboratories where the shrinking process takes place and its economy-sized Leisureland, all that creativity comes to naught in the movie’s undercooked story. Perhaps speculative fiction is just not the right genre for this often humane yet snarky filmmaker: Downsizing offers him his biggest conceptual canvas yet, but ironically feels like his smallest movie to date.
Downsizing opens in theaters on Friday, Dec. 22.