Alexander Payne's Downsizing: Big ideas, little payoff

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B-minus

Before I get to actually critiquing Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, let me geek out on you for a second about physics.

The movie’s premise has humanity (or a portion of it that succumbs to an ad campaign) agree to be shrunk down to the size of Barbie and Ken dolls, the better to minimize the use of resources, and maximize the impact of savings on housing and food.

Matt Damon gets sold on getting small by his buddy Jason Sudeikis in Downsizing

Matt Damon gets sold on getting small by his buddy Jason Sudeikis in Downsizing

It’s a fact of physics that small things don’t need as much muscle to move (hence spindly insects). I had a high school math teacher that used the principle to show why “giant insect” monster movies are scientifically impossible, because an insect the size of an elephant would collapse under its own weight. Elephants look like they do for a reason.

Conversely, tiny humans would be able to jump like fleas, many times their height, because musculature versus mass would enable them to.

I say this because I couldn’t help imagining a more entertaining version of Payne’s film in which Matt Damon leaped tall (to him) buildings at a single bound. Such reveries tend to happen while watching a movie like this, which - its intriguing concept aside - is far too long and the temptation is for your mind to wander.

So, to the movie. Like a lengthy Twilight Zone episode without a twist ending, Downsizing begins with a fantastical premise and some big ideas. Norwegian scientists unveil the aforementioned shrinking process as a ‘cure’ for overpopulation, an announcement that is welcomed enthusiastically, leading to the creation of the first small-people “commune.” Years later, corporations have taken over the selling of the idea, and not surprisingly greed is a selling point. A little bit of money buys a lot of luxury when you’re small.

Enter Paul Safranek (Damon), a deskbound shlub, whose money troubles lead him and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) to buy into the drastic enterprise (courtesy of Paul's salesman buddy, played by Jason Sudeikis), get shrunk, move to a place called Leisureland and turn a modest $150K of net worth into the equivalent of $12 million.

Irony rears its giant head, however, when Audrey gets cold feet even as Paul is undergoing the procedure. Talk about your irreconcilable differences. This would be when the Twilight Zone episode ends on an ironic note and a sermon from Rod Serling, as Paul miserably ponders his life of luxury in a tiny “monster home” in Leisureland minus the love of his life (who looms over him like a sheepish leviathan).

But Payne has other ideas, about altruism and the cost of comfort. Paul discovers that there is a class system in Leisureland, courtesy of the cleaning staff who pick up after the noisy parties thrown by Paul’s obnoxious Eurotrash neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz). Said staff returns home to a ghetto for people who can’t pay the freight on even a five-inch life. For some reason, most of them are immigrants.

Among them: amputee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who was forced by the Vietnamese government to undergo the downsizing process (and whose broken English  seems a kind of backwards trope). 

From here, the plot meanders, as Paul, Dusan and Ngoc seek some sort of redemption with a trip to the Norwegian commune, as the world continues to decay around them. There’s a full hour and change of the film where we’re not sure what the characters are looking for.

By dint of sight gags alone, Downsizing is not humourless, but it doesn’t have the satirical touch of Payne’s best work (Nebraska, Sideways). It seems to be his most ambitious film (the miniature world is realized startlingly well), and at the same time it’s perhaps his least successful.

Interesting ideas only take you so far without a solid plan – or a giant leap or two.

Downsizing. Directed and co-written by Alexander Payne. Starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau. Opens wide December 22.