From THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and WOMAN, to FANTASTIC VOYAGE, to HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, Hollywood has been rethinking how to explore shrunken worlds through new perspectives. It seems ironic that the typically astute minds behind DOWNSIZING, a story about finding a new perspective on life through miniaturization, don’t feel like truly exploring much beyond their own white male purview. The absurd dramedy’s socially conscious aims, fantastical whimsy and heartfelt sentiments curdle by films end, becoming disingenuous, exploitative and utterly sluggish. Sadly, every time it tries to satirize and skewer white male privilege, it winds up celebrating it instead.
Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) are looking for a way to maximize their money, entertaining the notion of literally minimizing their life together. A few years prior, a scientist in Norway discovered a way to preserve the planet longer. People “get small” – shrink themselves – to reduce their drain on the Earth’s resources. Their money will go farther. Waste will be drastically reduced. And they’ll be able to live stress-free. All they have to do is step into a shrinky dink-like oven and bada-bam, bada-boom, they’re tiny. The only downside is saying goodbye to life in the real world and taking a big leap of faith. Audrey, however, panics, leaving Paul in the lurch in their mini-McMansion in the micro-community of Leisureland. Paul’s left to reluctantly return to his former mundane ways. That is until a one-legged-Vietnamese dissident, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), enters his life and challenges his worldview.
There might be a solid eighty minute movie buried deep inside the ideas posited in DOWNSIZING. It’s just that co-writer/ director Alexander Payne and frequent collaborator Jim Taylor (who together wrote the tidy, tight and excellent ELECTION, SIDEWAYS and CITIZEN RUTH) aren’t interested in telling it. They barely want to explore the interesting territory they set up. There’s a little LAST MAN ON EARTH-inspired irreverence in the more bombastic moments (mostly in the first thirty minutes). Prop gags like the enlarged saltine crackers, tambourine and rose are funny. However, the filmmakers lose all the legitimately funny things once they start into their “woke” social consciousness. It meanders mercilessly from there on out.
During the multiple lulls, the rules of the world become a rabbit hole of confusion for the audience. A multitude of questions crop up – ones we wouldn’t be thinking if the feature were as entertaining as the first act. The filmmakers set up some strife between regular-size folk and the small ones, but there’s not much payoff. It’s more of a temporary talking point. There’s a Tijuana-type place outside of the walls of Leisureland where poor immigrants live. Once Paul travels through the tunnel on a cramped bus to get to this hidden community, things get heavy handed – and, quite frankly, insulting.
There’s not much meat to account for Audrey suffering a crisis of confidence with her decision. It’s only there in interest of servicing Paul’s arc. In fact, all the women in this film are only there to solely nurture the male ego. The scene where shrill caricature Ngoc weeps in gratitude in front of Paul, hardy-partying neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and his pal Konrad (Udo Kier, who is this film’s diamond) is tonally problematic. We’re supposed to be laughing that Ngoc has turned the tables on these selfish men, who are attempting to bail on her in her time of need – only we’re not. The scene would’ve been better had she recognized what they were doing and weaponized their guilt. That’s not how it plays.
One of the biggest problems is that Paul remains a passenger for far too long. It takes him an interminable amount of time to eschew the fake-tented safety of Leisureland for some real world adventure. And his reasons for doing so don’t exactly ring true to his Jimmy Stewart-ish nice-guy character. As he even points out, he’s forced to make a decision based on an amalgam of coincidences and happenstances that have come to him thus far. You never feel genuinely tethered to his journey and when the inevitable occurs, you won’t care in the slightest.
It’s possible that DOWNSIZING could play as a double feature with director Mike White’s BRAD’S STATUS. They’re close cousins given that both have similar thematic touchstones. That said, White’s film has the edge over Payne’s because at least there, the character’s white male privilege is called out.
DOWNSIZING opens on December 22.