Downsizing review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Downsizing is most tragic as a sci-fi comedy that begins with big ideas of grand ambitions and quickly shrinks into a sputtering tale of finding hilarity in nihilism. It has a great premise though. To decrease the weight of waste humans use on the planet, scientists develop a technique that can shrink human beings to a smaller size. Requiring less food and making less trash, it seems like an intriguing route to pursue, especially with the attention to detail for how this will affect society. It’s just too bad that by the third act the audience is asking the question “now what?”
Attracted to this new way of life is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an occupational therapist who feels his life is too big. While he wants to scale back, his wife (Kristen Wiig) wants to move into a bigger house, despite the two of them not having any children. After speaking with some “downsized” friends, Paul eventually convinces her to go through with the process. Or at least he thinks he does when she decides to pull out at the last minute, leaving Paul all alone in his fancy mansion fit for a tiny human.
Not a bad start to this story, with a newly single guy trying to find something more in a new community. There’s certainly plenty to explore but, of course, Paul happens upon the darker side of downsizing so that there are bigger stakes involved. He trades his mansion for an apartment and tries to find a date while dealing with his noisy neighbor of a Serbian partier (Christoph Waltz). Further tapping into his environmental curiosity is the arrival Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist who shrunk herself down for a cause in the big world, turned into a maid in the small world Paul now occupies. Desiring to do more, he helps her out on the outskirts of the smaller community where the more unfortunate shrunken live. And from there he discovers a bigger plot about a literally deeper plan for humanity’s survival.
By far the most entertaining aspect of the film is the many layers of how this downsizing move shifts the culture. As more people take the plunge to be small, the economy for the larger world grows unstable, breeding sneering among others about how small people shouldn’t be allowed to vote for not buying the same amount of goods. It’s also clever how the technology is used for immigration and terrorism, where small people can infiltrate a country by housing inside small packages. The very process of downsizing is also pretty clever, requiring the complete removal of hair and teeth for the process to complete without error.
But from these promising beginnings, the story spins out of control by lingering and getting lost on drug trips, turmoil, sex, and the inevitable fall of mankind. It’s really hard to relate to Paul because he seems so aimless and boring as a man who wants to do the right thing when he feels all of humanity is doomed. All he can do is take the plunge, help some poor people, and decide whether or not to go with the next step in mankind’s survival. But does this sound like the journey of an everyman? Where his relationship with Ngoc seems to span pity sex and maybe more?
Downsizing feels criminally underdeveloped, both in what Damon does with the role and how underused Hong Chau feels in what should be more than a supporting player. There’s also a very talented comedic ensemble assembled here that includes Jason Sudeikis, Margo Martindale, Laura Dern, and Neil Patrick Harris. But for all the film presents in an intriguing sci-fi idea, the story amounts to little more than tediously basic cliches. Big ambitions turn up short, where even the absurdity of little people and big objects wears out its welcome.