Downsizing (Norway / USA / 15A / 135 mins)
Directed by Alexander Payne. Starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Rolf Lassgard.
THE PLOT: Occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) is facing a grim future with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). The bank is chasing them and they could lose their home. Then a solution comes in the form of downsizing – literally. A revolutionary new technique developed by Norwegian scientist Dr Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard) allows humans to be shrunk to five inches tall. The point being that ‘going small’ could be the solution to overpopulation, as small people can live like kings and their money can go much further. Paul goes through with the downsizing procedure, but Audrey pulls out in a panic. Adrift in a new world of small people, Paul tries to connect with gregarious neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and bossy, peg-legged Vietnamese dissident Ngoc (Hong Chau)…
THE VERDICT: ‘Downsizing’ is indie director Alexander’s Payne’s first foray into larger films, with visual effects playing an important part. Given the nature of the story, the considerable resources of a studio are required. Hence, Paramount have footed the bill for this film – but the figures speak for themselves (the film was a big flop in the US). It’s an unhappy marriage for the usually more considered and careful director, with the core problem lying in the story.
Payne’s script with long-time collaborator Jim Taylor never really settles on what it wants to be. If anything, you get three films for the price of one here. It starts as a satire, shifts gears into a social commentary and then rounds off with a doomsday romance. These tonal shifts are awkwardly handled by Payne and Taylor, never gelling together coherently. The film never really recovers from the amusing and intriguing first act, as it then wanders off in other directions to give it all some sort of meaning. It’s a film that’s very much in search of a plot.
The general lethargy in the writing stretches to the characters too, most of whom are unlikeable oddballs like Dusan or dullards like Paul (not one of Damon’s most memorable performances). The one ray of light here is Ngoc, brilliantly played by Chau. She’s by far the best thing about this muddled film. Her character has suffered, having been miniaturised as punishment by the Vietnamese authorities. Even in her broken, almost-squeaky-voiced English, she knows the truth of herself and her situation. Any scene with her is a delight and she easily steals the film.
While done well and seamlessly, the visual effects are a distraction from the problems in the story. Payne has always been a sharp writer of character – ‘Sideways’ in particular. Perhaps it’s because he’s co-written an original story for a change rather than adapting one. While his imagination is commendable and the concept is amusing, something has definitely been lost – a voice. The voice of a director who is usually loud and clear. ‘Downsizing’ is a mini misfire that doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. A disappointment.
RATING: 2 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor

  • emerb

    Alexander Payne is one of our most inventive filmmakers and his latest is “Downsizing”, a comedy which stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as a husband and wife in a future where humans can shrink themselves in order to simplify their lives, cash in on some extra wealth and be less of a burden on the environment. Get small but live big – that’s the thinking and the promise offered by the new medical procedure. However, the ideal is not as wonderful as it sounds and we learn that miniaturisation is prone to abuse. For example, African dictators can shrink rival ethnic groups and there is the risk that “tiny” terrorists can infiltrate borders.
    “Downsizing” takes place in an indeterminate future, 10 years after researchers in Scandinavia have discovered a method of “cellular reduction” that can safely shrink human beings to the height of five inches and thus dramatically reduce their ruinous impact on the globe’s vanishing resources. Occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are intrigued, especially when they meet old friends (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe in cameos) who have gone small and rave about their new life. They are even more drawn into the idea when they take a tour of a development called “Leisure Land” where everybody is small and the tiny residents live in the lap of luxury in elegant, pristine surroundings with grandiose doorways, big pools and manicured golf courses, all because a little goes such a long way. The couple long for a fresh start and, seduced by this life of opulence, decide to undergo the relatively easy procedure (shave your hair and remove your fillings!). The problem is that the lifestyle change is permanent and irreversible and his wife isn’t fully convinced…..

    For a year life for Paul is going well even if he is constantly tormented from the hedonistic, aging Eurotrash boys next door, Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and Joris (Udo Kier), who keep pushing him to party. It seems that being small doesn’t hamper your enjoyment of sex, drugs and rock & roll! It’s when he meets a no-nonsense cleaner who works for Dusan, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), that his life takes some unexpected turns. We learn that she was shrunken against her will and smuggled into the U.S. inside a TV box. While she was a cause celèbre for a short time, now she is forced to clean the apartments of Leisureland’s wealthy to earn a living. Paul hopes to use his therapy skills on her prosthetic foot to ease her pain. As they spend more time together, they grow close. Paul is horrified at how she has been treated in life and where she lives – in a falling down tenement in a previously unknown part of the downsized world where poverty is rife. Slowly his view of the world begins to change and their relationship develops further as he spends more time in her presence. Eventually they find themselves headed for Norway, along with Dusan and Joris, back to where scientifically all began….

    Performances are outstanding across the board. Damon is the perfect fit for the dutiful, regular guy, Paul. He’s affable, conscientious and good natured and horrified when he listens to Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau) bluntly recount her brutal life history and painful suffering. Hong Chau is a complete scene-stealer. Her comic timing is superb and she easily delivers the film’s most revelatory and offbeat performance. She could so easily have been a saintly martyr but instead she is funny, direct, brisk and even occasionally profane. Their evolving relationship is genuine, endearing and touching to watch. Waltz is having a ball as the joyously sleazy European past-his-prime playboy from upstairs and there are other brief but memorable appearances from actors such as Margo Martindale, Jason Sudeikis, Laura Dern and Neil Patrick Harris.

    “Downsizing” is a sharp, captivating and funny film which is completely unpredictable. You never know where the story is headed and that is by design. We are drawn into an alternate but believable world. The plot feels fresh, is cleverly constructed and a sheer pleasure to watch. From a technical point of view, it is flawless as expected with inventive camera work and impeccable visual effects. I like that the story touches on pressing present-day issues such as immigration, corruption, terrorism, exploitation, climate change, poverty and loneliness. It’s impossible not to like this film – heartfelt, good-humoured and moving, it’s true when they say the best things come in small packages!