Alexander Payne’s latest film, Downsizing, is undoubtedly a departure from his previous projects. While Election is a brilliantly written look at politics and Sideways offers a unique perspective on relationships, Downsizing is a muddled mess bordering on being unwatchable. If anything this movie is the perfect example of why even the best casts can’t save a poorly developed concept. The single idea of a shrinking world to help the environment has all the makings of a good film. However, Downsizing wavers back and forth between being a comedy, satire, and a film attempting to make social commentary. The problem is none of it done well. Compounding matters, Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig are lifeless on the screen which brings what little momentum builds to a screeching halt.
The narrative centers around a scientific breakthrough allowing people to be shrunk from six feet tall to around five inches. In this new tiny world, life appears to be more comfortable, it seems to be environmentally friendly, and personal wealth explodes. Paul (Damon) and Audrey (Wiig) see this and decide they want to part of this new world. However, things don’t go according to plan. Audrey backs out leaving Paul living in a world that’s entirely foreign to him. Could this experience lead to an awakening?
Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor have managed to take a great concept and transform it into something blaise and forgettable. The movie is an interconnected series of events that have no flow while all are seemingly trying to tackle some version of a social issue. Just when it seemed Payne and Taylor were to make a statement, he’d move on. It was as if they didn’t have the guts to make any comment so why not just say nothing. Rather than seize the moment and build our narrative around environmental issues, why not just rely on sight gags. It’s annoying and weak. Speaking of weak, Damon’s performance didn’t do this film any favors either.
In theory, the audience should have been empathetic towards Paul (Damon). The reality is he does nothing to endear himself to the audience. Remember, this is a guy who gave up everything to go into a world so they could have a better life and was abandoned. Damon’s performance is absent from any heart. Some might point the finger at the horrifically crafted narrative but someone of Damon’s caliber should have given at least a decent performance. Christoph Waltz pulled it off.
Waltz plays one of Paul’s neighbors in this new five-inch world and manages to hold his own in spite of the terrible script. Instead of being dazzled by Waltz’s talent, many of us in the theater were puzzled as to why he was even in the film. His whole character could have been cut from the film, and the narrative wouldn’t have missed a beat.
The sets were drab and unappealing. The scenes over the wall were primarily in a massive apartment complex and what’s with only minorities being on the other side of the wall? While certainly there had to be others who lived in that enormous building. Payne’s trying to show us the pitfalls of a class system, and it seems rushed. Hong Chau’s character is meant to hammer this point home, but all she does is muddy up an already cloudy storyline.
One wonders what Damon’s next project will be after two projects fell well short of expectations. Can’t get much worse than Downsizing for the Oscar winner.