By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
With six great movies in his filmography preceding his latest release, director Alexander Payne has had a critically acclaimed career so far. I, personally, have loved each one of his movies leading up to Downsizing. From Citizen Ruth to Nebraska, Payne, sometimes with the aid of writing partner Jim Taylor, has made some wonderful and intelligent comedies which capture different facets of the human condition. Even though their previous movies have been firmly grounded in reality, Payne and Taylor have decided to take on a different kind of challenge in Downsizing. With their latest collaboration, the creative partners have taken on science-fiction with a goal of sending a socially relevant message. Though the film does entertain with its mostly funny comedy, Payne and Taylor struggle with the film’s tone and their messages get somewhat muddled in the process.
In the near future, Norwegian scientists work on a solution to deal with the Earth’s problems of over-population and mass consumerism. Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) succeeds in creating what he believes is the perfect solution–downsizing. The scientist and his team have developed a revolutionary method of shrinking human bodies to an average height of five inches. Their successes give the human race an option to reduce human consumption, waste and pollution an a massive scale. However, not everyone seems sold on the idea. In the U.S., occupational therapist Paul Safranek and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to undergo the process and relocate to one of the nicer miniature communities available. Things don’t go quite as Paul had anticipated and he must adjust to his brand new life. His life following the transition become an eye-opening experience when he meets housekeeper and former Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).
After adapting three novels (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) for film, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor have made their first originally conceived movie since Citizen Ruth. The movie seems to be intended as a satire with intelligent commentary on human wastefulness, greed, and carelessness with the environment. The humor, however, feels better suited for a slightly wacky spoof. The humor, which is the element of the story which works best, consist of sight gags and jokes related to the miniaturization of people. These jokes are often goofy and cartoonish, but not so much that it annoys. I honestly found myself laughing at the silly absurdity taking place and enjoyed some of that signature style of humor that Payne and Taylor often have in their films which focuses on the hilarious reactions of people in uncomfortable situations.
The goals of the movie are ambitious, but seem to get mixed up in the clumsy tonal shifts in the movie. Payne and Taylor have important things to say, but for the sake of humor, they don’t seem to commit to these messages seriously. In one moment, they make a genuine statement regarding humanity’s disregard for the environment, but in another they are almost making fun of that message for an attempt at laughs. The overall result is a confusing movie that feels like it got away from its creators and lacks a definitive purpose. Visually, the effects work well and look credible enough. The design ideas are quite beautiful where they should be and appropriately disturbing when necessary. Payne’s vision is a dystopia-in-progress not too far removed from where the human race is today.
Though I had some issues with the writing and tone of the film, I will acknowledge that another positive aspect in the movie are the performances by the amazing cast. In addition to some wonderful and often hilarious cameos (which I will not spoil), Downsizing also features great appearances by Jason Sudeikis. Maribeth Monroe, Kevin Kunkel and Kristen Thomson. The film also has a dream pairing of Udo Kier and Christoph Waltz as two egotistical, but charming, hard partying neighbors of Paul who eventually befriend him. As Paul’s wife Audrey, Kristen Wiig is great, but actually doesn’t get as much screen time as I had expected. As Paul Safranek, Matt Damon is perfectly cast and delivers a fantastic performance as the typical Payne/Taylor “everyman” type of protagonist that often leads their movies. The real star of the show, though, is Hong Chau, who is delightful, lovable and hilarious as Ngoc Lan Tran, the Vietnamese revolutionary-turned-cleaning woman whom Paul befriends. Chau steals just about every one of her scenes with her unfiltered, sharp-tongued, broken English. Her character becomes the real heart of the film and often the voice of reason.
Though I am sure Payne and Taylor had a method for this movie, it unfortunately gets lost in some of the wacky madness of the story. Though very messy, I still like Downsizing overall, but when compared with his previous movies, it is an utter disappointment. It is a film I still recommend for fans of satirical/spoofy science fiction, but one better left for viewing at home. For my fellow Alexander Payne fans, I hope they are prepared to be let down a little. I admire the messages that Payne and Taylor are trying to convey, but feel that they could have delivered them better.