Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Nebraska) is a director who is known for “small” (small being basically synonymous with independent) movies with big stars (Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bruce Dern). His latest film, Downsizing, continues in that same vein, but with more studio marketing than for any of his previous films. Unfortunately, the best thing about an Alexander Payne film, a consistently quirky tone, gets abandoned this time around.
Downsizing explores a differen genres in each of its major acts. While in better movies, this might be rightly labeled “quirky” or “original” and might work for the premise, in Downsizing it does not.
The first act is a pretty by-the-numbers dramedy about the premise. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) learn about downsizing, a new process that shrinks you down to five inches tall. Once downsized, they get to live in a tiny community built for luxury and wealth. It’s supposed to be more sustainable and help the rapidly dying earth, not to mention increase your buying power exponentially, but it’s not without its problems. Here, the film is presented as a smart social commentary.
Then it takes a nosedive into a meandering second act where a newly downsized Paul wanders around, feels sorry for himself in his lonely new land, goes to his neighbor Dusan’s (Christoph Waltz playing Christoph Waltz, so I’m just going to call him that from here on out) European party, and meets Ngoc Lan, a former political activist whose government downsized her against her will and shipped her to America in a TV box. Ngoc Lan and Paul, through a series of adorable circumstances, find themselves working together to care for the people of the slum Ngoc Lan lives in. A commentary on immigration and poverty in the United States? Maybe?
In the third act, Ngoc Lan, Christoph Waltz, and Paul are invited to come to Norway to meet the original inventor of downsizing. Once there, they learn that the world is actually dying and that a group of small people are going into a vault to repopulate and continue the human race as the outside world dies. Life must find a way, and Paul can’t think of a better use of his life than to join them. But he loves Ngoc Lan and at the last minute joins her instead of going with the others. The end.
If that defied all of your expectations for the film, then you’re not alone. But is this the genius kind of crazy, or crazy kind of crazy?
Downsizing could be seen as a cautionary fable, and some critics, like Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter who named the film the best of the year, interpreted it as such. But unlike movies that are clear fables, like say, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona, Downsizing does not present itself as one. It plays as an SNL skit that goes on too long, feels like it needs a political message, and invents an ending that is just an excuse to go hang out in the fjords of Norway. It begins to give a social critique, or make an interesting statement, but can’t complete a single thought. It’s a rollercoaster of different stories crammed into one.
Ultimately, I think Downsizing would work much better as a short film. The main parts of the film- man learns about downsizing, downsizes, is unhappy, meets woman, finds purpose in helping others- would be more coherent without hours of filler in between. It’s the filler in Downsizing that bogs down the film and makes it unclear. The second and third act don’t even need to be in a downsized world!
Another problem is with the character development. Paul is a nice guy the whole movie. He doesn’t have a character arc, so there is no real change in his character that reflects the change to “downsize” his life decision.
If I were to find a message in Downsizing, I think the end says something whole. Paul has the opportunity to go with the group of small people to keep the human race alive. Paul finds it all important and sacrificial, but Ngoc Lan wants him to stay with her, primarily for love. He is about to go into the vault when he decides to go back to Ngoc Lan and spend the rest of his days helping her in the slums of LeisureLand.
It seems that director Payne is saying Paul needs to think smaller. He doesn’t need to join some humanity-saving experiment. That big picture thinking is what made him small and unhappy in the first place. He needs to think small like Ngoc Lan, and care for the people around him. He needs to “downsize” his vision and purpose. This is actually a compelling message, except the film doesn’t quite set it up to be that. The film treats the small people going into the vault as doing a necessary and important thing, so why isn’t Paul supposed to be a part of it? And he goes back to Ngoc Lan for love- that’s why she wants him to stay, too.
This problem is representative of the whole film: it has a handful of messages it wants to say, but either doesn’t complete a thought or say something seemingly unintentionally. And because I crave meaning, I have had to dissect it from a film that might not have meant to say that at all. To see such a great premise, with a prolific team behind the scenes, is disappointing.
So if you do see Downsizing, which I can’t recommend, please-
keep your expectations small.