Opens December 22 • Starring Matt Damon • Director Alexander Payne • TLM Rating 2/4
“Alexander Payne creates a world where shrinking yourself and all your possessions is entirely plausible, and a tempting alternative.”
The shrink-ray has always been a coveted science fiction weapon, both for its novelty and downright silliness, but “Downsizing” got me thinking about its practical uses. Imagine how much easier moving would be if you could shrink your furniture. Storage would be forever changed—all the junk you’ve accumulated throughout your life could fit in a cigar box. Toss out that unseemly ant farm and replace it with an actual farm.
Alexander Payne’s newest movie thinks bigger, as in “saving the world” bigger. Why bother with a mass exodus to a different planet or huddling the earth’s population under a climate-controlled dome when we can just shrink ourselves? But not everyone who decides to shrink is thinking about saving the planet; most people are, unsurprisingly, thinking about themselves. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) doesn’t have much going for him. He has lived in the same house for all his life, the first half with his mother and the second with his wife. He feels trapped in some kind of domestic time-loop, where he’s an insignificant player in a larger story, if a player at all and not just some tangential spectator. In other words, he feels small. Maybe he should see a shrink (sorry). After running into an old high-school buddy, who is now the size of a potato chip and all the happier for it, Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to abandon their old lives and take a walk on the smaller side.
With the initial reveal to the public by a Norwegian scientist, Payne creates a world where shrinking yourself and all your possessions is entirely plausible, and a tempting alternative. Cable news pundits talk over each other in debating the pros and cons of the practice, small people argue that the world isn’t “small-friendly” enough, and the discovery is already being weaponized by certain countries. It’s easy to see our world become this world. In one of the film’s most amusing scenes, Paul and Audrey attend a downsizing expo, where they’re pitched the perks of shrinkage with a demonstration that has all the integrity of a late-night infomercial. They giddily fall for it, like two people desperate to fall for something—anything that takes them from where they are.
In fact, much of this film is amusing until Paul is shrunk. After that, it stagnates for a while, and the direction it ultimately chooses is disappointing. Payne has given us some of the most potent, fleshed-out characters of the last twenty years—love ’em or hate ’em, it’s impossible not to feel something toward Tracey Flick in “Election” or Miles Raymond in “Sideways.” But after Paul’s physical transformation, Payne brushes him aside to tell a larger, high-stakes story in which Paul is merely an insignificant player, once again. Whether it’s the universe or the movie, nobody seems to care about Paul.
Part of this larger story involves Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese woman who was forcibly shrunk by her government and now works as a maid. She’s played by Hong Chau, a relative newcomer, who upstages Damon immediately and makes Paul feel even more unnecessary. Like Payne’s best characters, Ngoc is relatable yet wholly unique, as well as frustratingly human. She gives the movie a heartbeat when it’s at its most lifeless.
There are such things as “minor Woody Allen” and “minor Spielberg,” but as of yet, there’s never been “minor Payne.” That changes with “Downsizing,” which has all the makings of a great movie, but none of the follow-through. It’s odd that the “save the world, forsake the characters” complex seems to have spread beyond the blockbuster films into the world of dramas. Sometimes I just want to see a movie about a guy named Paul.
Hunter Lanier is a Houston-based film reviewer who appears on the Critics Circle podcast from the Houston Film Critics Society.
Cover photo: Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek and Jason Sudeikis plays Dave Johnson in Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.
Photo © 2017 Paramount Pictures