Jacob Richardson | 28/11/2017
It’s a messy, self-important piece of work, but at a fundamental level Alexander Payne’s Downsizing explores an incredibly interesting concept in a deep, detailed way.
Downsizing is a meandering, formless and other adrift piece of work. But it is an incredibly interesting concept, and with such gloriously well thought out set design, who needs strong story?
When the world’s scientists discover the process of downsizing (where humans are shrunk to approximately four inches tall), people rejoice. Here is a saviour for the environment! It’s also good on participants bank balances, with everything in Leisureland (one of multiple small designed communities) so incredibly cheap that you can live in comfort for the rest of your days on your savings alone. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to take the plunge, but when he wakes up after the procedure, he finds that his wife is nowhere to be found, having fled the downsizing centre filled with second thoughts.
Alexander Payne takes an intriguing idea, and follows it down a long, winding and hyper-specific road. There seems like a million places where this movie, and this script, could have diverged to become something different. In many respects, this can be frustrating viewing; we see tendrils of little, intriguing story elements that we want to know more about. But at the same time, it further solidifies this as Payne’s vision. This is just one possible avenue to take in this world, but it is a more clearly delineated and purposeful story for it. It’s ironic, then, that this film seems so unfocused.
Payne banks his tale around an excellent cast. Matt Damon’s everyman quality is the perfect foil for Hong Chau’s manic energy and Christopher Waltz’s jovial gangster act. Damon brings a pathos that is underscored by humour to his frequently insane decisions. Waltz is playing outside his recent typecasting, although only just, and it makes you wish he pursued even more insane character choices in his movies, because he is a tremendous actor. Chau is brilliant, bringing warmth and life to a character that seems somewhat stereotypically written. She’s the centre point of so much comedy, and it is a brilliant choice.
Alas, these characters pale in comparison to the story, which is the real star of the show. And that’s where the problem lies, because while Payne has crafted an interesting story, he is too interested himself in world building to deliver a poignant narrative arc. In particular, this feels evident in Damon’s final dilemma; whether to join a bunch of nihilist environmentalists in an underground paradise to ride out a coming environmental apocalypse, or whether to stay here in his tiny world with his new love interest. It’s a dilemma that feels shoehorned in because narrative structure demands that there is some final challenge to overcome, but it also feels unearned. Paul Safranek is an everyman; not some selfless hero destined to save humanity from environmental ruin. Everything we have seen up until this point is him acting as audience proxy, exploring this world with the same wonder we have. But there is no build up to this finale; no foreshadowing of his need for purpose in the world. It’s representative of a larger problem the film has with story structure, because often it feels like it’s just fizzling out, moving back and forth on a whim with no real idea of where it wants to, or needs to, go.
On the plus side, the world building is done so exquisitely it doesn’t really matter. You can immerse yourself in 2 hours and 15 minutes of remarkable set design and beautifully constructed thought. For Downsizing, that has to be enough.