For a few fleeting moments, I'd say about 30 minutes of its 135-minute running time, it appears as if acclaimed director Alexander Payne has done it again with Downsizing.
Then, Downsizing loses its way and the film's 135-minute investment begins to feel excessively demanding as what began as an intriguing premise is reduced to not much more than a gimmick and a not particularly important one in the overall scheme of things.
Downsizing gets downsized.
Payne himself has referred to the film as an environmental metaphor, though with the Payne/Jim Taylor penned script Downsizing's themes end up being about as obvious as "Deep Thoughts with Jack Handy."
In case you're wondering, that's not a compliment.
In the film, Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are living semi-floundering lives though their idea of floundering is more about being unable to move up to a bigger house than it is any actual struggle with survival. Living in a world, the timeline is never really firmly defined, where the environmental crisis has worsened and efforts to address the crisis have become more pronounced, Paul and Audrey become aware of a new process called, you guessed it, downsizing. Downsizing is to be taken quite literally here. It's a permanent process that shrinks human bodies to about 1/500th scale, thus also reducing their footprint and their cost of living. When Paul meets up with the downsized Dave (Jason Sudeikis) at a college reunion, the decision is made for Dave and Audrey to take the downward spiral.
Downsizing is centered for the most part on Paul's experience for reasons that will be disclosed soon enough. Paul finds himself set adrift in a rather directionless manner inside Leisureland, one of the communities set up to meet the needs of the growing numbers of "smalls." He makes friends with a couple of European neighbors played by Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, though it's when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in the United States inside a television, that Paul's life really becomes interesting as Ngoc Lan challenges Paul's worldview in ways that border on bullying yet push Paul toward a higher plane of existence.
While Damon's Paul is clearly the central figure here, as the film moves along that becomes an increasingly misguided choice as Paul isn't a particularly interesting fellow and Damon seems content to allow him to quietly exist amidst the far more compelling figures of Waltz's Duman and Chau's Ngoc Lan.
It's not a coincidence, really, that for a film released to critics as part of awards season that it is only Chau who has attracted awards buzz and, in fact, snagged a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe nomination. While some have expressed concern about potential stereotyping given Chau's heavy Vietnamese accent in the film, rest assured that Chau's performance is the film's highlight as the actress finds shades and nuances of her character offering up depth, intelligence and sensitivity even when her behavior is rather boorish.
Downsizing is far from the travesty that many critics have proclaimed it to be, though it may qualify as one of Payne's weaker, less-focused cinematic efforts. With fleeting moments of brilliance followed by more than fleeting moments of big ideas that go nowhere, Downsizing is a film about going smaller that tries to cram in way too many big ideas to ever make it all work despite an excessive running time that is simply unwarranted and unnecessary.
But hey, Matt, it's still better than The Great Wall.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic