Set in a near future where shrinking to your mini-self is now possible, Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig) see this as an opportunity to live a better life. But the so-called “better life” turns sour following an unfortunate turn of events after Paul underwent the downsizing process.
Words like “visionary” aren’t the first thing in mind when comes to describe Alexander Payne’s body of work. Besides, his prior movies such as Election, Sideways and Nebraska are all belonged to a small-scale, character-driven dramedy type of category. But Downsizing, Payne’s first movie in four years since Nebraska, marks a refreshing change of pace that sees him venturing into a sci-fi territory filled with big ideas and an undeniably fascinating “what-if” premise: How do you solve the problem of overpopulation? According to Payne alongside his frequent collaborator and co-writer Jim Taylor, the solution is by literally shrank a person to a mere five inches tall.
The premise is no doubt the biggest selling point of this movie. In fact, during the first act of Downsizing, Payne and Taylor successfully imagine an alternate reality where many things can be changed and improved for the better through the downsizing process. By going small, the human beings are able to save the environment since there will be fewer carbon footprints and even solve one’s financial problems. Such as the case is the Safraneks, whose total assets of US$152,000 will be worth more than US$12 million if they choose to downsize themselves and live like royalties in Leisureland. With such a world-building potential, the story can definitely explore in many different ways.
Unfortunately, both Payne and Taylor aren’t the kinds of filmmakers who go all out with their visionary setup. After a promising and imaginative first act, the subsequent narrative starts to lose its lustre once the movie shifts focus to Leisureland. The biggest problem here is the main protagonist himself played by Matt Damon. While he made quite an impression playing an amiable everyman, his overall character’s journey in this movie is mostly mundane. It doesn’t help either when the movie overstays its welcome with a protracted 135 minutes. Then, there’s the third act which you have to see it for yourself. Let’s just say Payne and Taylor try to be more ambitious by inserting a certain theme just to spice things up. Too bad the theme itself is haphazardly executed that feels as if it was a last-minute addition to the script.
Still, Downsizing has it’s few moments. Apart from the aforementioned first act, the movie is also blessed with a strong supporting cast. Christoph Waltz is perfectly sleazy as the obnoxious Dusan Mirkovic, while Kristen Wiig made the best of her screentime during the first act before her character is unfortunately written off for the rest of the movie.
But it was Hong Chau who surprises me the most with her scene-stealing performance as the tell-it-like-it-is Vietnamese refugee, Ngoc Lan Tran. In fact, her no-nonsense character even upstaged Matt Damon in many occasions, albeit their winning chemistry. At the time of writing, she has already received many accolades in the awards circuit and I really hope the Academy would consider her a slot as one of the Best Supporting Actress nominees.
Although Downsizing may have suffered from limitation and other shortcomings, Alexander Payne’s latest movie remains an intriguing piece of work.