Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgard, Ingjerd Egeberg, Udo Kier.
Written by: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Running Time: 130 mins
Release date: 24th January 2018
Downsizing, the latest film from director Alexander Payne, famed for the likes of About Schmidt, Sideways and Election, looks like a film brimming with big ideas and huge potential. Unfortunately, this is a film that starts off ambitiously and ends up a crashing bore as it seems the director and co-writer, Jim Taylor, have no idea what to do with such a cracking first half. What also makes this a disappointing experience is that those who view it are certainly going to come up with a dozen ways it could go and they are miles better than what is on the screen.
The world is becoming overpopulated and causing environmental difficulties. Scientists have come up with a solution: shrinking people and allowing them to live in purpose-built areas with loads of possibilities. Struggling Paul sees the journey as a way of never having to worry about money again, so he and his wife, Audrey, sign up. The day arrives and Paul is shrunk but discovers he is alone in his new world and finds himself making new friends who open his eyes to what could happen.
Films about shrinking people are not unusual but the premise here, about ordinary people, provides plenty of room to manoeuvre. There’s the comedy road, with the little people coping with the rest of the world being so big, or the horror aspect, that of fighting survival from the land al la The Incredible Shrinking Man. What Payne has done is squandered the initial premise for something far more rambling and often incoherent.
The first hour of the film has a sense of fun, as we watch Paul and Audrey making the decision to change their lives forever, preparing for the big day, listening to the arguments to and for taking the leap into the new existence. Even when Paul discovers that he is alone on this journey throws up huge steps to more comic potential. Yet it’s the moment Paul moves into this new land that the film goes way off the rails.
Introduced to his party-loving neighbour, Dusan and the Vietnam celebrity, Ngoc Lan-Tran, a woman who was a human rights activist who took on the shrinking process and lost a leg in the process, who is now a cleaner for Dusan and becomes a huge interest to Paul, the film cannot decide what it wants to be. Forming a satire about modern life and dangers it poses turns into a forced romance which then turns into an eco-warning when the unlikely group meet the originator of the process, who then explains about the impending doom ahead, it becomes increasingly depressing and, worse still, unbelievably boring.
The script isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. Where Payne and Taylor’s films have worked well before is creating interesting characters and putting them in unusual situations. Here is just doesn’t work, mainly because Paul isn’t that interesting. He is a fairly bland man who is kind and caring but that’s it. Schmidt was a cantankerous old man with an acid tongue and this was used to great comic value in About Schmidt. Even the warring teacher/student in Election had enough interest that you could watch them individually and not get bored. Paul is, quite frankly, dull and doesn’t have anything that interesting about him
Matt Damon as Paul is likeable enough but it’s not enough to carry the film and so we watch just an unextraordinary man going through life without really challenge himself. He meets a woman who has plenty of bite and spends the last part of the movie pushing him around. Christoph Waltz puts on an unusual European accent as Jack’s party-happy neighbour while Hong Chau is about the best thing in the film as the Vietnam woman who unexpectedly falls for Jack.
Downsizing is a bit of a waste as far as effort is concerned from both the makers and the viewers. It is a film loaded with possibilities but delivering none and it has to go down as one of the big disappointments of the year. I hope this is only a small blip in Alexander Payne’s CV and that he comes back bigger and better and to the world which we have grown to love about his off-kilt movies. Think we should forget about this and move on.