Have you ever been at a party and someone just starts chatting with you in a friendly way, until halfway through the conversation you realize that the person you’re talking to is a smug, elitist asshat of the highest caliber? That’s kind of what watching Downsizing feels like, only the smug jackoff you’re conversing with also happens to be a bitter divorcee who still seems he can’t get over his breakup from about a decade ago and how life is SOOOOO much better without her. Oh and he’s SOOOOO much a better person than her, like you don’t even know. If you’ve encountered such a lovely individual in your life, you may not have a good time with Downsizing; if you have not had this experience in your life…well, time for a helpful life experience.
So we find ourselves in a world where Norweigian scientists have discovered a way to safely shrink humans to about 6 inches tall as a way to be more environmentally conscious. Living at this size after undergoing a procedure called “downsizing” results in slashing resource use and waste creation to a substantially small amount. But the procedure is widely adopted by the rest of the world when people realize they could build lavish dollhouses for themselves and live like royalty in perfectly curated communities. Among people attracted by this lifestyle are Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig) after they were fed up with being unable to move due to mortgage issues (and the promise of their middle class equity being converted into the equivalent of millions of dollars as a result of downsizing). However, while Paul goes through with the procedure, Audrey gets cold feet halfway through and doesn’t get shrunk, resulting in the pair getting divorced. This leaves Paul alone in his new downsized community of Leisureland where he befriends colorful characters like a Serbian smuggler named Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and a Vietnamese activist named Lan Tran (Hong Chau) that was shrunk against her will before escaping to America.
…Oh you wanted more plot? Tough cookies, because there’s not much of a story to sift through. Yeah, after a strong first act demonstrating the initial hype of downsizing and getting to know Matt Damon’s character, the film practically grinds to a halt once you get inside Leisureland. Part of the problem is that their is no more wonder to being six inches tall when everyone and everything has been reduced to the same size as our main character is, so you have nothing to be excited about. Similarly the new problems now facing our protagonist are no different than from a regular sized person who faced a messy divorce.
Now some would argue that this is the point of the movie: that making such a drastic change doesn’t free you from the regular problems facing society. But on the other hand, what’s the bloody point of shrinking everyone when you can basically tell the exact same story without the fantastical or science fiction element. Good science fiction is all about introducing an unrealistic concept to a cast of characters and seeing what they do with this new concept. And Downsizing only occasionally pays lip service to a few ideas of the consequences of shrinking (like voter rights, healthcare availability, poverty, punishment to dissenters, and climate change), before getting bored of these intriguing possibilities and instead focusing on a bland tale of a “nice guy” divorcee getting bossed around by a sleazy neighbor and a headstrong maid.
Before we get to the other characters, I should clarify that I did not think Matt Damon did a terrible job in this movie. He’s fine in what he’s given, and he at least seemed more invested than the last two times I’ve seen him. But the script doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with as he functions as our Hat or audience surrogate to introduce us to the world of Leisureland. Main problem is that he’s neither likable not interesting enough as a character to follow for our two hour run time.
Damon’s character only makes two major decisions in this movie, and one of them is heavily implied to be more of his ex-wife’s encouragement more than anything else (no, we don’t get to know much of their married life except being frustrated with their middle class lifestyle). Further, Damon’s character isn’t even all that likable because he seems to have had all personality sandblasted off, so it’s really difficult to want to root for him when we find him in this world. Which is a damn shame because the movie also introduces us to two characters who were infinitely more intriguing to be around.
First up is Christoph Waltz’s Dusan, who we find living a hedonistic lifestyle in the downsized world by smuggling in illegal contraband like drugs and other illicit amenities for the affluent members of this rich society. Dusan has incredible disdain for these people, but he laughs it off in a curiously nihilistic way that he was truly presenting an angle that I had not thought of in this world: that people are still greedy as hell and always want MORE. It’s one of the rare good lessons the movie has to teach, but the big problem is that we only get about 25 minutes of this fascinating character as we keep cutting back to boring ass Matt Damon. And hanging around this dull protagonist only gets more annoying when you meet Lan Tran.
Now, I have seen quite a bit of controversy surrounding this character, with some critics claiming her performance was “racist” on account she speaks with a very heavy Vietnamese accent. The actress, Hong Chau, I should point out does not normally speak like this and it appears she drew on her parents’ accents when they all moved to the United States. Now I wouldn’t call it racist as she doesn’t engage in a deeply uncomfortable dialogue; further Hong Chau really does deliver one of the best emotional beats in the film that would have gotten more attention if we weren’t chained to Matt Damon for so bloody long. And her character of Lan Tran does offer insight into the abuses of downsizing as well as exposing us to the fact that no matter how perfect a society looks on the surface…there will ALWAYS be someone who has to clean up the shit. But as with Chrisoph Waltz’s character, we are given barely any time to appreciate these interesting themes because we have to keep going back to Matt Damon dicking about like an unwanted house guest.
While the characters of Dusan and Lan Tran gave very clear thematic elements and raised interesting questions like good science fiction should, Damon’s Paul is comparatively a frustratingly useless and passive character that the film, oddly enough, forces to go through a character arc that is completely unearned. I had to go over in my head and read other critiques just to figure out what exactly was the point of Paul’s journey, until I remembered that he is the product of Alexander Payne. He’s the writer behind Sideways and About Schmidt, and prefers to go for more unconventional narrative digressions that are really about everyday people working out their bullshit or failing to learn about their shortcomings.
I get that this is more of an acquired taste, but it’s one I’m personally not fond of and furthermore…he’s condescending as hell. This whole movie honestly feels like Payne is trying to be cognizant of harsh realities facing the world, while failing spectacularly to grasp the reasons behind these issues like a certain scumbag writer I know. Oh yes, and it appears Payne is still not over his divorce with Sandra Oh almost ten years ago as their are some…problematic elements to where he takes the character of Lan Tran and the ex-wife.
When all is said and done, I see a film that was brimming with potential from a science fiction perspective, and what may have worked better as a television series, but stumbles at every opportunity to explore fascinating questions to become a character study of the most boring person imaginable. And as you get to the film’s weak sauce conclusion as Damon speechifies some kind of throughline that comes out of nowhere, the insufferable smugness of his movie becomes impossible to ignore. I do not recommend this for a theater visit, but maybe you would get more mileage out of this at home…but even then, I’m giving this a very, very low…