Downsizing (2017) ☆☆(2/4): Let’s get small!

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At first, “Downsizing” starts with an absurd but intriguing science fiction premise. As it keeps its attitude straight during its first act, it gives us a series of nice deadpan moments, and I and other audiences around me had some good laughs while watching these humorous moments. Unfortunately, the movie comes to lose most of its satiric edge while lackadaisically meandering with its rather colorless hero during the rest of the story, and what we ultimately get is another tiresome case of your average American white male coming-of-age drama.

The movie opens with a Norwegian scientist succeeding in developing an innovative technology which surprises everyone around the world when he presents it at an international academic conference five years later. Using some special chemical substance and device, he successfully shrank not only himself but also a group of people including his wife to the degree of 0.0364% without any particular damage to themselves, and everyone quickly becomes interested in the considerable potentials of his technology. Once people get ‘downsized’, they will consume food and resource far less than before, and this may ensure the survival of humanity in the future, which has been more threatened day by day due to increasing global environmental problems and decreasing resources.

When this technology is reported on the media, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), the occupational therapist of a meat processing factory located in Omaha, Nebraska, is mildly amazed like others around him, but things are changed a lot 10 years later. Downsizing becomes a lot more common than before, and there are several places around the country where those downsized people reside together. When Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) come to his high school reunion party, he is surprised to find that one of his high school friends recently got downsized along with his wife, and that friend enthusiastically tells Paul about how comfortably he and his wife have lived in one of those special places.

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Mainly because they have been struggling with their tight economic circumstance, Paul and Audrey come to consider getting themselves downsized, so they visit the place where that friend and his wife live, and they are surely impressed by its sunny, luxurious environment insulated from the world outside. At one point during their visit, they and other visitors watch an amusing presentation from two downsized characters played by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern, and it is clear from their wryly broad performance that Harris and Dern enjoy every second of their brief scene.

When a financial counselor notifies them that they can actually live far more comfortably than before, Paul and Audrey eventually decide to get themselves downsized, and we soon get another funny scene as watching Paul going through the downsizing process step by step. Once he is anesthetized, his naked body is swiftly handled along with the naked bodies of many other people, and they soon cross the line once their bodies are put together into a big downsizing machine.

Not long after regaining his consciousness in his brave new world, Paul is devastated to learn that his wife changed her mind right before being anesthetized, and he is frustrated to see that there is nothing he can do about that unexpected change. One year later, he reluctantly signs his name on a divorce document, and he continues to feel unhappy although his current economic situation is less desperate than before.

Around that narrative point, the movie begins to spin its wheel while increasingly feeling aimless, and even Matt Damon’s earnest acting is not much of help. While Damon surely fits well to his character, Paul is not a particularly interesting character from the beginning, and the screenplay by director Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor does not give us enough reasons for why we should care about Paul’s unhappy status. We may feel sorry for him a bit, but his emotional journey in the film is flat and dull on the whole, and even the rowdy sequence associated with Paul’s hedonistic neighbor played by Christoph Waltz does not help much.

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This narrative problem becomes more glaring when the most interesting character in the film appears later in the story. After having a rough night in his neighbor’s residence, Paul comes across a young Vietnamese cleaner named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) in the next morning, and she shows him the other side of his seemingly comfortable world when she takes him to where she and other poor people reside. Although her character initially feels like a broad stereotype, Hong Chau, who previously played one of supporting characters in “Inherent Vice” (2014), imbues her character with a considerable amount of pluck and personality, and you may wonder whether the movie could be more compelling if it were about her character instead of Damon’s character.

The movie subsequently tries a little left turn during the third act, but it does not push its premise any further, and, to make matters worse, it virtually fizzles without any substantial dramatic or comic effect. While Paul surely comes to be enlightened a bit in the end, that is predictable and contrived to say the least, and I only came to observe the ending without much care. I was also quite disappointed to see a group of good performers being under-utilized in their thankless roles in the film, and Kristen Wiig, who can quite funny or touching as shown from her previous films including “Bridesmaids” (2011) and “The Skeleton Twins” (2014), is particularly wasted in her bland functional role.

“Downsizing” is not a total bore at least, but it is a major letdown compared to Payne’s acclaimed works including “Election” (1998), “About Schmidt” (2002), “Sideways” (2004), “The Descendants” (2011), and “Nebraska” (2013). They all can be labeled as American white male coming-of-age drama, but they are equipped with more humor and personality compared to “Downsizing” at least, and I enjoyed and admired them all. I understand that Payne tries something different here, but the overall result is mediocre at best while lazy at worst, and I can only hope that he will soon rebound from this misfire.

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