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‘Downsizing’ comes up short

January 3, 2018
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Sometimes, a film is simply less than the sum of its parts.

Take “Downsizing.” This movie has everything you could want in terms of quality entertainment. You’ve got a talented writer-director auteur-type at the helm in Alexander Payne. You’ve got a top-tier movie star playing the lead in Matt Damon. You’ve got a dynamite high-concept premise that offers fertile ground for satire with room for both humor and hubris.

All the pieces are here. Unfortunately, “Downsizing” can’t figure out just how to put it all together, leading to a film filled with tonal inconsistencies resulting in a haphazard narrative. Instead of assembling one puzzle, this film tries for three or four different pictures; what we end up with is something muddled and more than a little frustrating.

In the near future, Norwegian scientists have discovered a process that allows organic matter to be drastically shrunk with no ill effects, including proportional changes in terms of mass and volume. After years of testing, the process is deemed safe to use on humans.

What follows is a trend toward the notion of “downsizing” – shrinking a human being down to a height of just five inches. It is pitched as a method of environmental protection, as smaller people consume far less and produce much less waste. It also has appeal to those seeking a better lifestyle, as money is worth far more to those who “get small.”

Paul Safranak (Matt Damon, “Suburbicon”) is an occupational therapist living in Omaha. He dropped out of med school to care for his sick mother who has since passed; he still lives in the house he grew up in along with his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig, “mother!”). He’s fascinated by downsizing, but his imagination is truly captured when he goes to his high school reunion and encounters a former classmate named Dave (Jason Sudeikis, “Permission”) who has undergone the process.

Soon, Paul and Audrey decide to take the plunge and sign up for a spot in a popular small community in New Mexico called Leisureland. But after Paul gets small, he discovers some big problems.

He’s got a weirdo European neighbor named Dusan (Cristoph Waltz, “Tulip Fever”) who throws wild parties and makes his money in questionable ways. It’s through Dusan that he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, TV’s “Big Little Lies”), a Vietnamese dissident and refugee who was shrunk against her will and escaped to America, only to lose a leg and wind up as a housecleaner.

Ngoc shows Paul the other side of Leisureland, the one that isn’t in the brochure. After all, even Leisureland needs people to clean houses and drive buses and collect trash – those people live lives of quiet desperation that bear marked little difference to those lived by their full-sized brethren.

And then it gets weird. Paul, Ngoc and Dushon wind up heading to Norway and visiting the very first small colony, where downsizing inventor Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard, “A Man Called Ove”) has decided to take even more drastic steps in his efforts to save humanity from its own hubris.

In the end, Paul simply wants to matter, but it’s up to him to decide how much he’s willing to do and what he’s willing to sacrifice in order to do so.

“Downsizing” tries to do much, only to wind up not doing enough. The basic concept was enough, a wonderful framework for the kind of biting and incisive satire that Payne does so well. But he chooses to add unnecessary narrative turns, muddying the waters to such an extent that the impact of the original conceit is largely lost. We’re left with pieces that, while not bad on an individual basis, simply don’t fit together properly. The overall impression is of missed opportunity; you can definitely see the outline of a really good movie in there.

Damon does decent work here, though the truth is that he has never quite clicked as this sort of everyman. He tends to default to incredulity a little too often. Still, he’s engaging enough. Chau’s performance is fueled by a grating edge, one that some might argue goes a bit too far, though a focus on the emotions concealed by the overly-blunt veneer reveals considerable depths. Waltz could play this role in his sleep; it’s lacking a bit in terms of nuance, though much of that springs from script issues. But hey – Christoph Waltz on cruise control is better than 95 percent of what’s out there. There are flashes from other members of the ensemble, but they generally don’t get a lot to do.

Don’t get me wrong – there are some things to like about “Downsizing.” The first half of the movie is quite good, engaging and funny in a thoughtful way. Unfortunately, the plot gets weighed down by unnecessary additions (particularly in the third act) that cause it to feel a bit heavy-handed and plodding to an extent that even sneaky-good performances can’t save.

In short, “Downsizing” fails to come up big.

[3 out of 5]

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