Downsizing is about people who shrink down to five inches tall to reduce their ecological footprint. Somehow, Downsizing doesn’t seem to actually know or embrace that. Cowriter and director Alexander Payne is known for decidedly humdrum comedies that aim for steady titters instead of belly laughs, so I wouldn’t put it past him to make a sort of “anti” science fiction film. I’ve seen plenty of sci-fi films with underdeveloped premises, but this is the first time I’ve seen a sci-fi film flat-out ignore its premise. Nobody really needed to shrink in Downsizing. Whether or not that’s the point, the film plays less like a clever subversion of genre and more like a failure of imagination.
It’s really neat to see so much of the first act filmed in Omaha—except I’ll admit that I took it way too personally when the film adds a passing train sound effect to an area of the city where I know you can’t hear trains. Other than that, I’m going to skip past the first hour of Downsizing because it’s pretty much useless. Paul (Matt Damon)—who you know is an Average Joe because the film shows him excited for chain restaurants—shrinks in order to turn his middle income into extravagant riches; however, his wife stays normal-sized and divorces him. Although he expected to live like royalty in a miniature resort town, the ugly divorce leaves Paul with even Average Joey-er financial problems than ever before.
Some soul-searching leads Paul to misadventures with a Ngoc (Hong Chau), a former Vietnamese freedom fighter who became a cleaning lady in mini-America. I strongly recommend that you check out Asian-American film critic Walter Chaw for his much more personal take on the film’s disservice to Ngoc. Problems with her character are probably the ugliest side effect of Downsizing’s lack of creativity or cleverness. It’s worse when you realize the film didn’t need to introduce such an ugly caricature, or even the shrinking element, at all.
Except for a few visual gags, at no point does Downsizing engage its premise. The miniature world has no presence. After Paul’s divorce, the shrinking has virtually no effect on the story, and Downsizing never underscores its sci-fi element with any concrete themes. Despite the set-up, you won’t really find any eco-friendly messages or critiques thereof. Maybe Downsizing is about how after we save the planet we still have to save the people on it? Maybe it’s about environmental racism? Maybe it argues that we have bigger fish to fry than ecological issues? Who the hell knows? Downsizing seems to think itself as a satire, but of what exactly?
Aside from all of that, Downsizing is simply stale. Payne’s previous films got their personalities from “tragicomedy” with casts full of unfamiliar faces. When you strip all that away, you get a film that feels like it could have been put together by pretty much any journeyman filmmaker. Oddly enough, the only real fresh element of the film is the nudity. There’s a lot of it, but you only see naked dudes. Props to Payne for perpetuating some equity in on-screen nudity. Still, something’s off when that’s the thing I’ll remember about a science-fiction film about people who shrink.
Grade = D