Cinema release Downsizing: Dreaming big, getting small

Christoph Waltz in 'Downsizing' (2017).
Christoph Waltz in 'Downsizing' (2017). | © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Living large, good things coming in small packages, thinking global and acting local: if it’s a turn of phrase about size, scale, following your heart, appreciating what you have and/or thinking about the planet, then Alexander Payne has clearly heard it. More than that, he has weaved it into the fabric of his latest film. In ‘Downsizing’, those clichés, quotes and adages inform a movie with well-meaning intentions but a jumbled execution. As the feature endeavours to shrink humanity down to size, while demonstrating that urges, emotions and actions don’t dwindle with them, its grasp exceeds its reach.

Or, perhaps it’s a case of having eyes bigger than its belly. What Downsizing doesn’t lack is plot, themes, tones and tangents, but, in stuffing them all into one package, it still finds itself falling short of its aims. At once satirical and sentimental, an uneasy feature eventuates: astute in its take on a science-fiction staple, ambitious in its study of contrasts, and affable in the way it presents its many parts; and yet, too broad and unfocused to hit the mark.

Payne wants to play with something small to say something big, yet is never willing to venture past the obvious. Payne wants to play with something small to say something big, yet is never willing to venture past the obvious. | © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Here, dreams can stay big only if the people behind them get small. In the near future of the film, literally reducing a person’s footprint is not only possible, but is deemed a necessary step to save the planet. Still, when the irreversible process begins to gain popularity, it’s due to material rather than environmental reasons; physical miniaturisation results in a fiscal boost, reflecting the decreased consumption of resources and products that comes with it, and therefore enabling participants to live a tiny life of luxury.
 
In keeping with Payne’s recent penchant for struggling men trying to navigate their way through their ordinary existence — as seen in About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska Downsizing spends the bulk of its time with Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). After an introductory sequence introduces the movie’s concept via a Norwegian scientist (Rolf Lassgård), a ground-breaking discovery and some willing human guinea pigs, Safranek watches on as the news is televised; five years later, with a wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), by his side, he starts to contemplate walking down the reduced track. It’s an easy enough decision for the occupational therapist with unrealised professional plans and the inability to buy the full-sized house Audrey wants. Of course, it’s a completely different reality when he does make the drastic leap into smaller territory.


Payne, working once more with now five-time co-writer Jim Taylor (Citizen Ruth, Election), spends his opening act exploring the idea and offering a smart parody of the reasoning behind it. Size matters in a number of ways, especially when it comes to everyday folks eager to trade up their routine lives — and happy to pare down their own stature, by a magnitude of more than two thousand, to do so. When Downsizing enters Paul’s newly tiny world, it initially continues in the same manner. Then European playboy Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), his business partner Konrad (Udo Kier) and Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) cross his path, and the feature gets caught between its comedic commentary — about climate change, sustainability, materialism and consumerism, social climbing and white privilege, among other subjects  — and the desire to turn its protagonist’s journey into a profound awakening turned love story.

A big mess with small impact

While its writer/director may be sticking to type, it’s hardly surprising that such a mix of components proves a big mess with a small impact. Some moments land, such as the point stressed by having Ngoc arrive in her new miniature home via a television box — a statement on the western world’s love of cheaply made goods, but fear of immigration from the areas responsible — as well the wonder with which the pint-sized relish normal-sized goods, be it a rose or a bottle of vodka, and the inventively low-fi method of actually completing the shrinking. Others flounder, particularly Ngoc’s characterisation, which swings wide with broken, accented English used for comic purposes, and a downtrodden yet determined woman made a catalyst for someone else’s transformation.

'Downsizing' endeavours to shrink humanity down to size. 'Downsizing' endeavours to shrink humanity down to size. | © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. There’s much in Ngoc that speaks to Downsizing’s fortunes: trying to champion a different perspective, but lacking the ability to follow through in the intended manner. That’s not a criticism of Chau’s Golden Globe-nominated performance, with the actress giving the role depth, nuance and purpose that isn’t seen on paper; rather, it’s recognition that Ngoc is written to serve Paul’s story, and is therefore trapped by it, just as the film as a whole is beholden to its concept. Payne wants to play with something small to say something big, yet is never willing to venture past the obvious, and so his characters come across in the same way. And little things do stand out, be it clever sight gags and the adroit shots and staging that come with them, Waltz and Kier’s adept casting or some of the emotional beats; alas, they just don’t add up to anything momentous.