Alexander Payne makes people small, ideas smaller in ‘Downsizing’

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Grade: 2.0/5.0

There’s no guarantee of a smooth transition when a director who typically crafts low-key films decides to take a swing at high concept, but the growing pains and ambition can both provide a richer understanding of the artist’s sensibility. However, this is not the case with Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” a drearily redundant work from its usually pointed auteur of middle-class American disenchantment. Its outdated mishmash of an ostensible social satire causes the director of “The Descendants” and “Nebraska” to trade in the regional specificity that made those prior works sing for clumsily executed, “timely” moralizing and overcompensatory whimsy.

The hook is intriguing enough. In response to the increasing threat of overpopulation, scientists develop a medical procedure that allows humans to safely shrink down to the size of a soda can, thereby reducing their carbon footprints and, more attractively, their costs of living. The innovation begets an entirely new class of people who relocate to gated colonies in which they are free to experience to-scale lifestyles of luxury and leisure only previously afforded to Victorian aristocrats. Plagued by a perennial struggle to make ends meet, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are enticed by the prospect and decide to shrink down in order to live like the other half.

The film milks all the humor it can from the “downsizing” procedure, portrayed step by step with amusingly antiseptic detail. Unfortunately, however, the basic conceit also marks the apotheosis of Payne’s creativity. Without delving into the exact details, Paul and Audrey’s poorly characterized marriage is quickly tossed aside to leave Damon as the sole protagonist. What follows is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to social critique in which Payne explores the nihilism of materialistic culture — wait, no! — the guilt of white privilege — wait, no! — the nihilism and guilt of apocalyptic climate change.

While the narrative flow seems to be angling toward something picaresque, it leaves the satire utterly unwieldy, feeling toothless at best and indecisive at worst. Any and all humor is condensed to the occasional sight gag, without a single laugh emerging from its social signposting. What’s more, the film ends up irresponsibly brushing every single issue aside with its belated, ass-covering “c’est la vie” manifesto.

To Payne’s credit, he manages to conjure up a distinctively dapper look for his concept. There are fun touches that allude to the cultural idiosyncrasies of small communities, such as the gigantic rose that Paul proudly lugs over to his neighbor’s house party. The visuals are plastic in the best way; the inescapable synthetic textures subtly haunt these characters, serving as a constant reminder of the irreversible lifestyle change they’ve made. At times, it feels as if Payne is utilizing the dollhouse aesthetic to dig into the surrealistic qualities of suburban luxury, a simple trick that manages to be far more cogent and cutting in its criticism than any of the overtly topical plates that the film fails to juggle.  

The most prominent overextension comes in the character Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese political activist and amputee who was forcibly shrunken by her country’s government. Chau’s character had been a dominant point of criticism during the film’s rollout festival circuit, particularly the pidgin English in which she converses. But it’s her performance that pops the most, bringing an unsentimental candor and tremendously drained physicality which both allude to crises graver than the Safraneks’ desire for a larger house.


Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

It feels mildly hyperbolic to highlight a single well-thought-out performance, but Chau’s precision is a downright sobering presence in the context of the film’s numbing broadness. Nonetheless, “Downsizing” provides its own metonym in its framing of Ngoc, whose personal history is gradually supplanted by the need to edify Paul and drag him out of the dumps of his aimless midlife crisis.

“Downsizing” ultimately ends up spreading itself so thin that even its titular premise seems to be a negligible element by its belated conclusion. The only piece that emerges in full is Damon’s schlubby role as Paul. Shrunk down to the size of his “Team America: World Police” puppet, the actor’s performance is just as monotonous and somehow even more milquetoast.

Perhaps “Downsizing” could be forgiven for having too much on its mind, but Payne’s centering of yet another self-actualizing middle-aged white guy just translates as lazily smacking autopilot to navigate through his own carelessly constructed tirade of social button-pushing. As painfully overwrought as “Downsizing” comes to be, it is even more so a tedious and tired retread of familiar waters.

Contact Jackson Murphy at [email protected].