Movies as crushingly misguided and poorly-executed as Downsizing make me want to paraphrase Roger Ebert’s legendary review of 1994’s North. “I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it.” “I have no idea why [Alexander Payne], or anyone else, wanted to make this story into a movie, and close examination of the film itself is no help.” Indeed, Downsizing is a perplexing kind of awful. What starts off as an intriguing premise deteriorates – in the span of one scene – into some kind of hallucinogen-laced spiritual journey, complete with exactly zero characters to care about and a running time equivalent to three human lifetimes.
Focusing on overpopulation as the top problem facing the world, the setup introduces two Norwegian scientists who’ve come up with a possible solution: an irreversible process that shrinks a normal-sized person to five inches tall. There are perks to this. Because you now use a microscopic amount of the natural resources you previously did, your money is worth way more. Have a $100,000 nest egg? You can live in leisure like a king for the rest of your life in one of many domed structures filled with tiny mansions outfitted with all the amenities. This sounds appealing to Paul Safranek (Damon), a struggling occupational therapist, and his wife, Audrey (Wiig). After consulting with a friend (Sudeikis) who’s had the procedure, Paul and Audrey take the plunge. But things don’t go exactly as planned.
You know a would-be comedy is in trouble when the running joke is the mispronunciation of a character’s name. That’s the least of the problems here. Downsizing starts off interestingly enough; kind of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids meets Defending Your Life with a dash of Tim Burton. But then the screenplay introduces us to Dusan (Waltz), a playboy of sorts who throws wild parties in his plush condo. The film takes a 180 from here, mixing Paul up with Dusan and his Vietnamese house cleaner, Ngoc (Chau), who escaped to the United States in a TV box (she’s five inches tall, remember?), in a journey to the very first “small” colony.
Typically-dependable writer/director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, Sideways) makes too many miscalculations to count in his execution of this story. Even if you buy in to the flawed – if initially entertaining – premise, the novelty wears off at the forty-five minute mark. By the second half it doesn’t really matter if anyone is small or not. The character of Ngoc is stunning in its tone-deafness. Essentially the most offensively stereotyped Asian imaginable, there’s little to do but recoil in the seat. Of course, all of this is enveloped in a thick smog of self-righteousness. What Downsizing believes are savvy satirical observations about human wastefulness and selfishness are exactly the kinds of things that drive everyone, regardless of political affiliation, crazy. Downsizing thinks it’s playing with fire but is really just rubbing two twigs together and hoping for the best.
Certain films beg for the people involved to sit down with a bottle of scotch, record a commentary, and spill the beans about how things went this far south. Downsizing is most definitely a candidate; a true train wreck, but one during which you want to look away. Easily the worst prospective awards season candidate since 2012’s Hyde Park on Hudson, Paramount will be wishing they could shrink this film to mitigate the losses.
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Length: 135 Minutes
Rating: R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
Theatrical Release: December 22, 2017
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Written by: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis