There’s a scene in “Downsizing: that makes good on the satirical implications of its high-concept premise. Soon after deciding to partake in the “operation” to shrink themselves down to four inches, our protagonist, Paul, and his wife find themselves accosted by a drunk bar patron. This patron suggests a very intriguing idea: as miniature people, should they be given the same rights as everyone else? The immediate answer would probably be “yes,” but that raises the question of whether “downsized” people really live in the same society as the rest of the world. Should different laws be passed in their world? Are they allowed a different culture? Different rights?
These are all questions ripe for potential. Unfortunately, Alexander Payne made a story that lightly touches upon a myriad of topics instead of developing one strong concept. The result is a film that, while containing many interesting ideas, feels very surface level and overstuffed.
This film departs from Payne’s usual filmography of low-key character-driven films about middle-class angst. Now, it’s a high concept science fiction film about middle-class angst. “Downsizing” has a lot more in common with the director’s own “Sideways” than it does with “Star Wars.” Ultimately, the goal seems to make a character-driven story revolving around the backdrop of science fiction. If the films of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are any indication, taking a character-focused approach to science fiction produces works of art that can be fascinating. Unfortunately, Payne doesn’t provide us with a protagonist that fascinates in the slightest.
Paul Safranek is meant to be an “everyman” type. He’s got an average job and an average life. He’s generally pretty decent, with an “aw shucks” personality that would be endearing if he were given any sort of depth. I understand that Payne wanted an audience surrogate to take us through this world, but the story still needed a protagonist that held our interest at least a little bit. Matt Damon does an admirably restrained job of bringing this character to life, forgoing his usual star power to play what is essentially the personification of Wonderbread. But his performance only serves to bring to life what the script gives him which, in this case, isn’t that much.
The supporting characters hold up much better. Christoph Waltz is typically a joy to watch, and this film is no exception. He strikes the perfect line between charismatic and campy and brings a much-needed energy to the story. Hong Chau plays the most interesting character in the film: a Vietnamese refugee who has been forcibly downsized by her government. I wish that the film followed her story, as it seemed way more interesting than Paul’s.
On a visual level, “Downsizing” impresses. The color scheme is distinct, emphasizing light browns, sky blues, and whites. The production design also goes a long way in establishing the size of the people and their surroundings. Even when Paul has entered the “downsized” society, we never forget that they live in a very different world than ours. The way that Payne emphasizes this scale always feels natural and subtle, using a great combination of in-camera tricks and production design to drive this feeling home.
One could look at “Downsizing” as a road trip through a bizarro version of humanity. The story does follow Paul’s meetings with various small societies and, through these meetings, we do get a glimpse at how different groups of people respond to oncoming disaster. The problem is that these are just glimpses. An episodic movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey ensures that each story thread is given a complete arc that ties in together with the main theme. But “Downsizing” seems content to go from a satirical comedy to a social issues drama, to a proto-environmental disaster movie. Like it’s protagonist, “Downsizing” is pleasant enough to get along with, but will be forgotten pretty quickly.