Released: 19th January 2018
Directed By: Alexander Payne
Starring: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig
Reviewed By: Hannah Woodhead
In the seven-year hiatus director/writer Alexander Payne took between producing Sideways and The Descendants, he wrote the script for a little film called Downsizing. The project faced numerous delays, but was formally announced in 2014 as Payne’s seventh feature film. With an intriguing concept and an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig and Christoph Waltz attached, the film has been one of the most hotly-anticipated titles of 2017 – but could it ever live up to that amount of monumental hype?
In short, no.
The premise of Downsizing is undoubtedly whacky, but fairly simple – faced with climate change and overpopulation, scientists find a way to shrink humans down to minuscule size, as a last-ditch attempt to save the planet. The process is named ‘downsizing’ and quickly becomes goes global. Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an Omaha everyman, who quietly goes about his business as an occupational therapist at a meatpacking plant, married to his high school sweetheart, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). The couple struggle to live the life they dream of, and intrigued by the seemingly incredible opportunities that downsizing presents, decide to take the plunge. Unsurprisingly, they quickly come to learn that being five inches tall presents a whole new set of problems.
For imagination alone, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s script deserves praise. Downsizing is inventive and exciting in concept, and there’s a lot of humour to be found in their playful script, which finds as much physical comedy in the absurdity of its subject matter as it does heart. It’s ambitious and optimistic, but unfortunately, its charm wears thin quickly, and it verges on being sanctimonious. At two hours and fifteen minutes long, it even becomes a bit of a drag.
Matt Damon is the latest in a line of Payne everymen, but lacking the charisma of George Clooney in The Descendants or the gruff unpleasantness of Bruce Dern in Nebraska, he flounders, and his character quickly becomes an irritating, insufferable bore. There are stars aplenty in the cast, which features cameos from the likes of Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, and esteemed character actress Margo Martindale, but the stars of the show are Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau, who play Dusan Mirkovic and Ngoc Lan Tran respectively. Dusan is a Serbian party boy (with a European accent of unknown origin) who becomes Paul’s neighbour, and Ngoc Lan Tran is a Vietnamese activist shrunken against her will by a corrupt government. With both characters Payne introduces layers to his concept, but ultimately fails to recognise that Dusan and Ngoc are far, far more interesting than Paul Safranek, instead leaving them to exist as little more than half-baked stereotypes. Chau proves herself a brilliant actor, bringing warmth, light and a charismatic spark to an undeveloped character, and Waltz clearly has a blast as the charming party animal Dusan, it’s truly frustrating to see so much of the film focused on Damon’s character, bumbling and ineffectual to the point of being outright irritating by the time the film hits the sixty minute mark.
There’s clearly a lot that Payne wanted to say with this film – mediations on climate change, class and racial inequality, religion and love all feature – but there’s a sense that he’s been overambitious in its execution. His past films have been leaner and more pared back, demonstrating a gift for telling intelligent, charming stories about human nature and relationships. Predictable and ultimately lacking Payne’s usual charm and sharp wit, it’s heavy-handed on the schmaltz and feels like a rare miss for the director. Whilst Downsizing is enjoyable, it’s also entirely forgettable, which seems strange for a film with such a brilliant concept – but there’s just too much going on, and too little to take away.