Downsize This: Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” Doesn’t Stand Up

Alexander Payne is a fine director.  I’ve enjoyed several of his past films, from Election to Sideways to About Schmidt and Nebraska.  The trailers for Downsizing drew me in.  It looked like a typical Payne film, meaning I assumed it would be a mix of comedy and drama with some social commentary thrown in for depth.  Sadly, the film is a let down on almost every level, from the script, to the editing, to the inexplicably plodding plot progression.

The concept behind the film is an interesting one.  With the development of a new technology, people can choose to “get small” and live a life that is better for the environment.  Just think, if humans could shrink themselves to a fraction of their current size (approximately 5 inches tall seems to be the standard for the characters in Downsizing), everyone’s carbon footprint would shrink along with it.  But it’s not really the environmental impact that draws most people around the world to undergo the irreversible procedure.  It’s the “American Dream.”  Ironically, “getting small” allows middle-class people to live large.  People who are struggling to keep their heads above water can suddenly afford a mini-mansion, sports car, and spa package in this new smaller world.  This new lifestyle allows for creature comforts associated with wealth and consumer culture for a fraction of the price, at a fraction of the size.  It’s a win-win for the consumer and the planet.

(Warning: mild spoilers ahead)

However, as the film progresses, the rosy picture of life in a “small” community is not all it is advertised to be.  Payne seems to argue that Social Darwinism will win out, even in a small society.  Who will clean the mini-mansions of the newly “small” population? Who will serve as laborers in this new, emerging culture? Will the Western world continue to dominate the use of natural resources, at the same time marginalizing those with less wealth? Payne’s outlook on the future of humanity is bleak.  And while it’s an important statement, it doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie.

One of the most frustrating thing about the film is the innumerable guest appearances by big stars and acting heavy hitters who appear on screen for a moment, and then, poof, they disappear, never to be seen again.  Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, and Margot Martindale all make appearances, but don’t be fooled by the trailers.  These actors literally utter a few lines and never connect back to the story.  The film is truly carried by Matt Damon who plays lead character Paul Safranek, an ordinary Joe-type who works as an occupational therapist for Omaha Steaks.  I mention the name of his employer, because either it’s the most ironically poor product placement in the history of film, or it’s a statement about American middle-class consumption. Damon (setting his recent mansplaining aside for the moment) gives a fine performance, though it seems a bit sleepy.  There just isn’t all that much to work with in terms of the script.  His character seems bland, and his social revelations seem a bit trite.  Yes, I get it, by becoming small he grows as a person.  But the way he “grows” is somewhat problematic.  The plot involves both too much foreshadowing of things to come, and seemingly ridiculous swings in tone and tempo.  Hong Chau plays a Vietnamese dissident (Ngoc Lan Tran) who is shrunk against her will as a punishment for her political activism, highlighting one of the ways this new technology can be used in nefarious ways.  Chau is one of the bright spots of the film, but her character seems to be a clichéd vision of female otherness used to impart wisdom to the powerful white male character.  This stereotype has been used repeatedly in film as a means to allow a flawed protagonist to become a better man.

The first half of Downsizing focuses on Damon’s character, his family life, and his personal struggles, but the second half of the film takes a drastic detour.  The pacing of the film is inconsistent, as is the message communicated.  To put it more plainly, the film is a bit of a mess on every level.  Definitely wait to see Downsizing when it comes out on video, if at all.


Patty Williamson

I teach media-related stuff at Central Michigan University, and have been ruining film for students for nearly 20 years.

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