Misplaced Humor Creates a Bland Atmosphere in Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing”

By Jacey Aldredge

Hong Chau and Matt Damon  /Paramount Pictures

Hong Chau and Matt Damon /Paramount Pictures

Even with a great premise, subpar execution causes this light sci-fi comedy to fizzle.

I had high hopes for this film. Any sort of futuristic take on how humanity plans on dealing with climate change intrigues me, especially ones that dabble in sci-fi. The premise behind “Downsizing” is exciting- a scientist, Rolf Lassgård's Dr. Jorgen, invents a way to physically reduce the size of the human body to just about five inches tall. In doing so, we can dramatically reduce our carbon footprint, and ultimately save the planet. Matt Damon stars as your average friendly neighbor Paul Safranek (pronounced Suh-frah-neck, NOT Saph-rah-nik), a middle-class occupational therapist whose dreams of becoming a surgeon were taken away when tasked with caring for his ailing mother ten years prior to the events seen in “Downsizing.”

Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon  /Paramount Pictures

Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon /Paramount Pictures

With the invention of downsizing, Paul and his wife Audrey (the too-little-seen Kristen Wiig) decide to take a leap of faith and undergo the process, which would leave them twelve million dollars richer, oh, and they'd be helping the environment, too. At least, that was the plan (and it was a plan enthusiastically backed by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern as we live and breathe, so even better). Instead, Audrey backs out after Paul is already small, and their eventual divorce leaves Paul pretty much in the same social class as he was previously. The difference? He’s now next-door neighbors with Christoph Waltz’s Dusan, whose eccentricities are matched only by an extravagance of luxury. Dusan is invigorating, positive, and ultimately, the truest thing you’ll see in “Downsizing.” He holds the key to loving life, and it has nothing to do with being small. Paul befriends Dusan and embarks on an adventure of ethics and self-discovery, albeit, a lack-luster one.

Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau  /Paramount Pictures

Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau /Paramount Pictures

Herein lies the problem— “Downsizing” has all the right ideas; mask issues of climate change in humor, send someone on a grand adventure full of nature’s beauty to discover their true worth, create a “solution” to overpopulation that could actually happen... however, the ideas lack great execution. Payne gave us a present with nothing inside. Beautifully wrapped, but empty. The emotional moments aren’t given room to breathe without some kind of joke following suit, and the jokes are, for the most part, all forced.

What could’ve been a great tale of enlightenment becomes stuffed with unnecessary plot. Kristen Wiig’s Audrey should’ve been eliminated entirely, or given about thirty minutes more screen time. The way she was thrown out of the story never to be seen again was equivalent to throwing out a perfectly good box of pumpkin pie; it never should’ve been bought in the first place if it’s whole purpose was to be put in the trash. While I understand her abandonment was meant to be Paul’s “push to greatness,” I can confidently say that going from six feet tall to six inches tall is a fabulous way to “push” you out of your comfort zone. We didn’t need a pointless extra storyline to do that.

Further, I pity Hong Chau. She played the infamous Ngoc as whole-heartedly as she could, and gave a riotous performance to boot. Chau stole the show, and as punishment for that, was never able to fully bask in her emotional moments without having some punch line to deliver.

“Downsizing” is self-sabotaging; it’s every teenage girl who, instead of acknowledging and owning her own worth, says mean things to herself in the mirror. “Downsizing” had everything it needed to be great; a powerful message of preserving our planet, a diverse cast full of talent, and breathtaking scenery. Had it trusted its audience to understand the message without fattening it with extras, “Downsizing” would have thrived.

To enjoy this film, be prepared to downsize your expectations. What can I say? I was mesmerized by the idea, and mortified by the result. A fifth grade science project gone bad, the only “A” I can give “Downsizing” is for effort.


'DOWNSIZING' 

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RATED: R

Directed by ALEXANDER PAYNE
Written by ALEXANDER PAYNE, JIM TAYLOR
Starring MATT DAMON, CHRISTOPH WALTZ, HONG CHAU
Distributed by PARAMOUNT PICTURES

"Downsizing" is in theaters nationwide Dec 22.  

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit here.