Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” has the recipe to become one of a kind movie – thought-provoking, funny and engaging. In the film, Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are a couple who decide to undergo a revolutionary “downsizing” procedure to become four inches’ tall people and, from then on, not only instant millionaires, but also the ones contributing to making environment better by reducing their carbon footprint. This fascinating concept and such stars as Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Kristen Wiig all promise a cerebral, astute social satire. What “Downsizing” ends up being? A disappointment. Strangely deviating from its own fascinating concept of small people, the second half of the film shouts bewildering environmental and political messages befitting more a climate or migration documentary, rather than a quality comedy/science-fiction film.
“Downsizing”’s main flaw is not too hard to pinpoint: the first half of the film is an interesting exploration of the “downsizing” procedure, which raises many ethical and social issues, giving a fascinating glimpse into the intricacies of the “small” life; the second half of the film (from the point when the character played by Christoph Waltz emerges) is surprisingly tedious, poorly-scripted and almost irrelevant. The second part of the film seemingly abandons the fascinating concept of small people and their plight in favour of big environmental/societal messages, and such extensive sidetracking is as astonishing as it is infuriating.
The beginning of the film is very intriguing. In a laboratory in Norway, scientists have found a way to harmlessly shrink species to a very miniature size, and, five years on, there is a community of about thirty people living in their own separate miniature world. The benefits of undergoing this procedure are presented as self-evident: no money worries for the rest of small people’s lives, and small people contribute to making environment better, as well as to solving the problem of overpopulation. Some more years on, and we have Paul and Audrey Safranek, a couple who struggle to pay off their mortgage, who start to seriously think about undergoing the procedure and finally decide that benefits outweigh the costs. The reasons to do it are very persuasive, as one character says in the story: “It is not [so much] about saving the environment, it is about saving yourself”.
Maybe the comedy in “Downsizing” is not the same as in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989), since “Downsizing” relies on observational comedy as well as on our sense of amazement and wonder, but some scenes, at least in the film’s first half, are still hilarious. When people in the story get angry they shout “Don’t be short with me!” and have conversations on the pleasures of living carefree for the rest of their lives on the Leisureland Estates. It is mind-bogging how such a thing could happen in real life, and we ponder and wonder at the concept in the film. The excitement is to be found in details: small people handle giant engagement rings, giant bulbs of roses, giant crackers, and there is a giant dollar bill pinned to the wall of one “small” house, a relic from a past, “bigger” life. The imaginative shrinking procedure also leaves little to personal imagination. Paul finds out that the reality of being shrunk is not as rosy as the benefits to come: the procedure is irreversible and intrusive, and it can result in a permanent disability or death.
It seems like a director/writer must have a special talent to ruin such a perfect, thought-provoking movie, and, well, it turns out that Payne has exactly what it takes to do that. Approximately one hour into the film, Paul Safranek meets his neighbour, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), and from then on, there is almost no point to continue watching the film. This is because the film will not focus on small people vs. big people anymore, nor will it explore the life of small people as such. Paul meets a number of different characters, including Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a cleaning lady from Vietnam, and together with this disabled lady visits a slum on the outskirts of the miniature world where small people still live amidst disease and poverty. The description may sound interesting, but the film lost its momentum completely. The script at this point is as lost as Paul on Dusan’s dance floor in one scene. The fascinating concept of small people is wasted and it becomes almost downright boring to watch unsympathetic characters having meaningless dialogues on unrelated topics, as well as Paul’s realisation of the significance of the shrinking innovation and doom’s day coming.
It is as though Payne tries to say in the film’s second half: “I have got your full attention with the concept of humans being shrunk and tiny people coexisting in their separate world, and now I am going to push my own message, something I wanted to do all along”, and Payne then sends out his unclear campaign consisting of a weird mix of inappropriately-presented environmental, migration, societal class-structure and anti-discrimination messages. By the end of the film, the audience may just wish Payne wrote a column on his views in New Yorker, rather than selfishly dragging his film audience in the film’s second part through the paces of his own political and societal visions. It would have been a better idea to reintroduce Paul’s wife Audrey into the movie, or perhaps underline the dangers posed to small people by big people or by diseases, etc. However, the film simply contends itself with a range of mundane characters realising that negative things also happen to small people, and, near the ending, one almost cannot believe it is the same film and it ends up being neither a good comedy nor a convincing drama.
The concept of people being shrunk, including all the relevant procedures and tiny people’s interactions with “big” objects, is just too fascinating to see to ignore the film. It is therefore unfortunate that some ill-considered marketing revealed plot surprises in the trailer, and the film’s second half is nothing more than a chaotic and almost irrelevant bombardment of environmental and survival of the species ideology. Hence, solely because of the film’s fascinating “downsizing” idea, elaborately and stylishly presented in the film’s first half, as well as because of Hong Chau’s admirable acting, I am giving this film a generous score of 6/10.