Downsizing Has Big Ambitions but Little Payoff

Alexander Payne’s satirical sci-fi comedy shrinks Matt Damon to five inches tall but can’t make him interesting in the process.

Udo Kier, Matt Damon with a big flower, and Christoph Waltz in 'Downsizing'
Udo Kier, Matt Damon with a big flower, and Christoph Waltz in Downsizing (Paramount)

In Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, there’s a solution for everything. Can’t keep up with your bills? Worried about your carbon footprint? Seeking a way to shake up the mindless reverie of your job, your marriage, or your day-to-day routine? There’s a (literally) one-size-fits-all answer. At the beginning of the film, a kindly Norwegian scientist named Dr. Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) invents a way to shrink people to a height of about five inches, presenting his discovery to the world as a way to stave off climate change by producing far less pollution and waste. It’s a noble idea that quickly, and unsurprisingly, becomes the latest lifestyle fad.

Payne (and his co-writer and frequent collaborator Jim Taylor) clearly set out to make a social satire of staggering ambition. Downsizing is a strange sci-fi fable filled with shrink-ray special effects and the bizarre production-design details of the tiny world it mostly takes place in. But it’s also the sort of movie Payne likes to make, which is to say it follows a mediocre man (played by Matt Damon) trying to find where he belongs and learning important, if understated, lessons about humanity in the process. If Payne had landed the mix of genres, Downsizing could have been a masterpiece. Spoiler (small print not required): He does not.

The utter anonymity of Damon in the lead role is Problem A. He plays Paul Safranek, a listless Nebraskan physical therapist with all the charisma of a pot of off-white paint who turns to downsizing to spice up his life. Yes, Payne’s films (like About Schmidt, The Descendants, and Nebraska) are often about Midwestern men in the grip of middle-aged malaise, but Damon goes so far as to make his character seem practically comatose. Why does Paul want to shrink himself? Because his life is boring. What happens after he shrinks himself? His life stays boring.

The first half hour of the film (which is quite long at 135 minutes) focuses on the alluring pitch of downsizing. When you’re five inches tall, everything costs next to nothing, since your material needs are so much smaller. You’re saving the planet, because you produce so little waste. And you’re still a citizen who can vote and even attend parties (as long as someone’s kind enough to carry you around in a miniature box). There’s one major catch, though: Once you shrink, there’s no way to reverse the process.

Downsizing’s rich premise offers Payne many chances to develop some intriguing sci-fi allegories. There are hints of political tension between the “bigs” and “smalls,” given that the planet starts to become depressingly empty as more humans move into tiny colonies. The loss of people to downsizing may call to mind America’s abandonment of the Rust Belt, or migration to the suburbs. But the script drops only a few hints about such real-life parallels before hastily unearthing, but not fully exploring, other big ideas.

Paul has a wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who amounts to not much more than a one-dimensional villain. In his shrunken colony, Paul meets Dusan (a delightful Christoph Waltz), a simpering playboy who makes his money on the black market, buying one Cuban cigar and divvying them up into a thousand little replicants for his small friends. This, again, feels like a fun opportunity to dig more deeply into the world Payne has created—but Dusan and his even more flamboyant buddy Joris (Udo Kier, wonderful as ever) don’t have much to do beyond dispensing bon mots.

The real engine of change for Paul is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist and refugee in Paul’s town who opens his eyes to the systemic oppression inherent in any idyllic suburban neighborhood, be it regular-sized or tiny. Chau’s performance is energetic and heartfelt, but Ngoc Lan Tran seems to exist only to help Paul realize a truth about himself: He’s not going to better himself simply by  fleeing to a packaged “perfect community,” and he needs to recognize the good in him to finally feel comfortable about his place in the world.

All fine lessons, but they’re brought about so laboriously as the story hops from place to place, ending up in Dr. Asbjørnsen’s downsized Norwegian community in a bewildering narrative tangent that dominates the final act of the film. Ngoc Lan Tran—who uses a prosthetic foot, routinely praises Jesus, and mostly speaks in haltingly delivered homilies—never gets to feel like anything more than a salve for Paul’s white guilt, there to reassure him that he’s actually a good guy.

All of Downsizing’s story elements are so audacious that I was rooting for Payne to make some narrative sense of them. But in two hours and 15 minutes, the only insight the movie offers is that stagnation is part of existence, and that while we probably can’t stop the world from ending with unbelievable scientific breakthroughs, all that matters is that humans are there for each other. It’s a sickly sweet and mundane message—exactly what I wasn’t looking for from a high-concept Alexander Payne comedy. His typically acid wit and subtle gift for quiet demonstrations of empathy have seemingly been shrunk to microscopic size in this film, and I could not locate them for the life of me.