Downsizing: A Doughy and Directionless Satire
Review by Aaron Haughton
Alexander Payne's social satire Downsizing is one of those films whose premise sounds extremely interesting but isn't effectively explored to any compelling extent. It's an ambitious concept, but it comes off jumbled and confused, failing to grapple with the many themes it tries to juggle. Some of it manages to stick (as things tend to do when you throw a bunch of crap at a wall), and the film manages to tread some very unexpected terrain, yet still manages to be a long, tedious, seldom gratifying drag.
When scientists discover how to shrink humans to five inches tall as a solution to over-population, Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in order to live in wealth and splendor at the acclaimed downsizing resort, Leisureland. However, the decision to downsize doesn't prove to be the salvation that Paul was expecting.
As far as Alexander Payne satires go, which are generally fairly pointed, Downsizing is as dull as he's ever been. All of the film's lackluster stems form the half-baked and fairly directionless screenplay full of soft and doughy concepts that are never given an opportunity to truly rise. Payne never chooses a side to stand on concerning the environmental issues central to the film, which would've likely worked to the film's benefit. Instead, it tries to straddle this odd bipartisan line; on one hand, it's saying that we should be more globally conscious, and on the other, it's saying that the planet is already too far gone and any efforts to mend it are essentially fruitless. It tries to come off as a think-piece, but its central message (if it even has one) becomes increasingly more and more unclear as the film meanders on.
The film may've worked better as an ensemble film, but the known names it manages to cram in (like Kirsten Wiig, Jason Sedeikis, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris, and James Van Der Beek) aren't around for much more than a bat of an eye. Narratively, we're stuck with Matt Damon's vanilla "everyman" character, who never manages to be anything more than boring, for the entirety of the film. Luckily, Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier have much bigger roles than the rest of the cameo performers, and they really help to give the film some (not much) redeeming quality.
The series of unexpected narrative and tonal shifts the film undertakes can very easily throw a viewer out of the story. The biggest of these are with Kirsten Wiig, who isn't in the film as much as trailer and synopsis suggest, and with Hong Chau, who plays Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan Tran. Both of these shifts are vital to a viewer's potential enjoyment. If you're unable to get behind the film after Wiig's short exit or Chau's bizarre accent and character rendering, the film may irritate the hell out of you. I was fine with Wiig not being a more permanent fixture in the story, but I teeter-tottered back and forth on Chau's performance. Her portrayal of the character didn't really work for me, but her performances did lead to a few laughs, which the film desperately needed more of.
I think the film tried to cover a little too much ground and got lost somewhere along its journey (or struggle) to find an ending. The unforeseen narrative turns or the amount of ideas the film flings out may be enough for some viewers, but I personally found its lack of focus and convoluted central message to be extremely frustrating. It left me with a lot of questions — mainly, what the hell are you trying to say? — but proves that science fiction is definitely not Payne's forte.
All things considered, Downsizing is not a total disaster. There are some interesting concepts that are halfway explored in the film, a handful of genuinely comical happenings (like the explosion in the third act), and some decent cinematography, particularly in the Norway portion of the film; however, it's just too all over the place to warrant a recommendation. If you'r one of those people that's curious about the film, I'd suggest holding off until it's available on demand — you're less likely to feel cheated or disappointed in that case.
Rating: 2 giant bottles of vodka outta 5.
What do you think? Did the film feel jumbled to you? What did you think the film was trying to say? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!