In the very near future scientists have found a way to shrink human beings down to a height of about 12 cm. To the films’s credit, it has put a lot of thought into what this would mean for our reality: the middle class can live like the super rich, as money goes a LOT farther when you’re small, people begin to question whether people who “got small” should have the same rights as everyone else, as they don’t contribute nearly as much to the economy, and evil regimes can shrink political dissidents to silence them. Unfortunately the movie barely explores any of these ideas, resulting in a film that is meandering at its best and painfully dull at its worst.
Matt Damon plays the protagonist and turns in a passable performance as an everyman. Kristen Wiig is Damon’s wife, though almost nothing is ever known about her character, Christoph Waltz shows up playing Christoph Waltz, and there are fairly delightful cameos from Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern. The most interesting performance is given by Hong Chau, who was a standout in PT Anderson’s wonderful Inherent Vice. Here she plays a Vietnamese political prisoner who was shrunk against her will, and escaped to America in a TV box. She makes her character feel 100% real and delivers mildly funny lines in a way that elevates them immensely. Sadly, she is ultimately relegated to the role of sidekick to Matt Damon’s increasingly insufferable protagonist.
Downsizing does a good job of making the world feel real and lived in, and there is certainly fun to be had here. Seeing Matt Damon sadly walk down a hallway with a rose half the size of him is undeniably hilarious, and the step by step process of shrinking a human is enjoyable to watch, if a tad long. The film also raises some interesting questions about income inequality, even if it has no interest in answering them. There’s also a bit involving a tiny explosion that made me laugh out loud.
Alexander Payne has made a slew of great movies – Election, Sideways, and Nebraska being my favourites – and knowing that he is capable of so much more renders Downsizing doubly disappointing. It is a perfect example of what happens when you don’t put the necessary work into Act 1 and Act 2. A fun beginning and OK middle devolves into a finale that is a complete mess, due to the lack of character and story built up in the first two acts. Downsizing ends on a shot of the main character’s face, and the fact that we have no idea which one of the movie’s many half-baked themes he is contemplating is a fitting end to an intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfying experience.