Initially drawn up more than a decade ago, Downsizing has been sandwiched and shelved several times in the years since Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor — those mavens of Midwestern malaise — won an Oscar for writing the more-coastal Sideways.
Payne, who also directs, says Downsizing’s delay was dictated by a need for visual effects to catch up to the premise — in which everyday folks voluntarily shrink to .0364% of their body volume for the self-satisfying salve of a reduced ecological footprint … and a boosted economic portfolio. See, in the land of the small, a middle-aged, middle-class middle manager from Omaha Steaks is king.
What a great idea to further challenge Payne — traditionally a purveyor of powerful, but photographically plain, ennui — as a follow-up to the lovely, unsparing, black-and-white Nebraska. What a great disappointment that Downsizing turns out to be a milquetoast, meandering mess — a retrograde, unremarkable and ultimately racist story in which a white dude finds his spark again, told with all the visual wit and sophistication of third-tier Farrelly Brothers.
Those revolutionary visual effects essentially consist of blurring the backgrounds behind shrunken characters, which only brings Paramount’s tight pockets into focus. Throw in one of Matt Damon’s worst performances — which brings to mind a bad impersonation of a bland Wilson brother — plus a third act so dumb it’s no wonder it’s not hinted at in the trailers, and here’s one of the year’s most disheartening misfires.
Funneling blood money it made from manufacturing mustard gas many years ago into something meaningful, a Norwegian biotech company discovers and perfects the “cellular reduction” process in a prologue that plays out in painfully straightforward tones. Jump to 15 years later, and Paul Safranek (Damon) is staring slack-jawed at TV pundits debating the ethics and effects of a world where downsizing runs rampant.
Americans use the process to retire to self-sustaining desert micro-communities protected from predators and piercing UV rays by giant domes. Consume less, feel better, luxuriate more is the elevator pitch. Despots use the technology to shrink dissenters and, sometimes, shunt them off to an unsparing service economy in said communities.
That the economic caste systems of the full-size world carry over to places like Leisureland — where Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), plan to spend their remaining days — is perhaps the best idea Downsizing has, and even that one is both unsurprising and unimaginatively developed.
Once Paul and Audrey decide to make the leap, thus begins a long montage of shaving, enemas and dental work (so fillings don’t explode your head when you shrink) required of the downsizing process, which ends with people gently deposited onto racks, via spatula, like cookies to cool. For reasons easily predicted by anyone paying attention to advertising for Downsizing, Paul finds himself unable to live as large as he’d like in the world of the small and then embarks on a basic, random and boring odyssey for redemption.
His story really starts when Paul meets Dusan, a hard-partying entrepreneur whose palatial pad sits inexplicably above Paul’s dinky apartment. Were there ever a role for a two-time Oscar winner, Dusan is not it, but it at least confirms that yes, Christoph Waltz can be boring. Aside from bizarre herpes jokes, he’s given almost nothing of interest to play here.
After a long night of partying at Dusan’s house, Paul meets Ngoc (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese political dissident who had her leg amputated before she was downsized, sent to Leisureland and able to find work only as a cleaning lady. Through Ngoc, Paul rediscovers his passion for ergonomic and orthopedic therapy, and Downsizing pivots from bland satire into both poverty tourism set to the strains of Rolfe Kent’s whimsical score and, later, an unconvincing environmental polemic.
At best, Paul’s lack of ambition mirrors the film’s own. At worst, Downsizing grows increasingly repugnant and ill-conceived as it drags on to a tedious conclusion too timid to truly take on the social-Oppenheimer aspects of one supporting character.
Also, Chau is an actress of such considerable comic timing and emotional sensitivity that it’s enraging to see Taylor and Payne saddle her with a character who’s little more than a two-bit caricature. Ngoc’s dragon-lady patois is strenuously pushed to new lows of embarrassment with each passing scene, and Ngoc’s agency is afforded only by the reluctant benevolence of white entrepreneurs who’d really rather have nothing to do with her. Keep in mind this is a woman of international renown for her vigilant fight against political oppression when she’s rattling off the types of “fucks” Americans provide. It’s perhaps the most needlessly nasty nonsense Taylor and Payne have ever written, and Chau’s consistent awards contention feels less like a recognition of her talent and more of a consolation prize for so bravely soldiering through it.
By the end, Taylor and Payne have essentially abandoned altogether the idea of a world where shrinking is commonplace — decimating their visionary idea into Honey, I Shrunk the Midlife Crisis.