Downsizing review: Alexander Payne's ambitious movie fizzles out in the second act
Director Alexander Payne sets out with an ambitious script. It's unfortunate then, that a weak script makes this movie an unsatisfactory watch. The idea is good. The concept is great - it takes “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," and turns it into something much larger. Even the build-up is great. The problem is that not much happens in the middle of the movie, with a little love angle introduced that takes away from the theme at large. That's Alexander Payne's Downsizing for you in a nutshell.
The plot is simple. A new medical innovation allows for the shrinking of people, a technology that will hopefully help save the planet in the long run. From the beginning of the movie we are told, “the one practical, humane, and lasting solution to humanity’s greatest problem” of overpopulation is to shrink willing participants. Essentially allowing more people to live in the same land mass.
Going small, as the movie progresses, emerges as a lifestyle choice. Five-inch-tall people start forming communities all across the country and co-exist with the big people. These settlements offer things - negligible crime rates and across the board happiness - 'traditional communities' can't.
Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek. A mismatch in a world that doesn't really get him. He hails from Omaha. He's a decent fellow with a big ambition of being a surgeon, but ultimately winds up being an occupational therapist. The dilemma comes when Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) consider reducing themselves to .0364 of their original mass and volume. They decide to make it large simply by turning small.
Paul and Audrey are a happy couple but want to live a little more extravagantly than their means and one day, they decide to shrink, after seeing a lot of small people. They are separated just before entering the operation theatre. While Paul goes through with it, Audrey bails at the last moment.
Damon is then forced to live his shrunken life without his wife. A party-going and exuberant neighbour Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and a militant Vietnamese activist Ngoc (Hong Chau), shrunk against her will, are there to give Paul the 'welcome to shrunkenness' that he needs. The wake up call to leave his ex-wife Audrey behind and live his life to the fullest.
The morning after a party at his upstairs neighbour Mirkovic's place, Paul finds himself becoming a servant to a person with a wooden leg. Turns out, she happens to be the famous dissident Ngoc. Paul travels to the Shantytown on the outskirts of Leisureland, with his new friend. Then, the two of them, join Mirkovic in a trip to Norway, where the first 'small community' settled. It is this community's goal to sit it out through the next wave of extinction. While we've come much too far from Omaha, there is something that needs to be questioned. Just where did all the big people disappear?
While the first half of the movie sets up the part comedy, part sci-fi, part satire well, there are two key problems with the second half. First, it is the inability of the script to translate to the audience the difference between what we know as the 'normal world' and 'Leisureland', the shrunken community Paul has chosen to live in.
Second, the romantic angle which consumes Paul distracts the viewer from the larger theme of trying to save Planet Earth from its tipping point. This is the weakest point in the script. With no difference between the two, Leisureland simply becomes a mirror image of the real world, as we all know it.
Then again, we're taken away from the question of just why people shrunk themselves. We, the viewer, have by now fallen into the trap of Paul and Ngoc, and their ever growing romance, which if you don't pick up the subtle hints, may seem like out of nowhere.
Payne may have a rich premise on his hands, but none of his 'shrunken' characters develop any emotional connect with the audience. You fail to truly understand why each character has chosen the irreversible process. Why do they want to be shrunken and what happens after they are shrunken are the two questions languishing in the minds of the viewers well after the movie is over.
Should you watch the movie?
It's a flip of the coin. While Payne's earlier movies are subtle yet damning satires about relationships, this one fails to establish any of the shrunken warriors and Planet Earth. If you want to see the scale and ambition (an idea that has appeared once before) laid out by Payne, then yes, it is worth a watch. Just remember, that at 135 minutes, this movie is much longer than it should be.
It's best you wait for a copy to arrive outside of the theatre and spend an evening when there is not much else to do on watching Downsizing. Ultimately, Downsizing has downsized the plot a bit too much, and it doesn't live up to any of the previous movies Payne has made.