Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the Toronto International Film Festival.
The greatest science fiction stories generally start with a single, significant change to the world, then consider what other changes would follow. Ambitious science fiction considers radical changes to culture and humanity, and possibly to the entire universe. The smaller-scale stuff might just consider how a hobby or an industry looks different with the advent of one new technology. Meanwhile, bad science fiction adds superficial changes to a familiar world, then loses track of those changes, and gets bogged down in familiar stories. There’s nothing more disappointing in the genre than a great idea that ends up buried under a mediocre story.
That’s what happens with Downsizing, Alexander Payne’s initially ambitious, ultimately bland film about a world where people are choosing to miniaturize themselves. When a new scientific discovery lets scientists reduce cells to a fraction of their size, it’s presented as the ultimate environmental solution: five-inch-tall humans use a fraction of the resources of full-size ones, and produce a fraction of the waste. It’s also the ultimate lifestyle solution for people who can’t afford to live luxurious lives. Suddenly, they can have their own sprawling McMansions in spaces smaller than the average dining room table.
Initially, Downsizing tracks the cultural, social, political, and environmental changes that come from such a vast technological shift. But before long, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor narrow their focus considerably. As the film wears on, they get further and further from the ideas that make the whole conceit unique and exciting. Like the protagonist, the story shrinks down to a fraction of its size, and becomes much less interesting in the process.
What’s the genre?
High-concept science fiction prestige drama, by way of a midlife-crisis family drama, with some bizarre picaresque road-movie adventure thrown in.
What’s it about?
Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig star as Paul and Audrey Safranek, a blandly beaming couple who come to the idea of miniaturizing themselves when they realize they can’t afford the lifestyle they want. But it takes Payne and Taylor a while to get to the Safraneks. First, they cover how cellular miniaturization was discovered, tested, and presented to the world. Payne brings some of the bright, crisp satirical feel of his 1999 movie Election to these segments, and he takes his time in establishing a big, bright world full of ambitious, well-meaning researchers and game volunteers. By the time the Safraneks show up, they don’t feel like the film’s center; they’re a specific point-of-view window into a phenomenon with global ramifications in every aspect of human life.
Then, once Paul and Audrey choose to downsize themselves and head to Leisureland Estates, a planned New Mexico community “for the small,” an unexpected development separates them, and leaves Paul stunned and off-balance. And suddenly, Downsizing is largely about his aimlessness, his midlife crisis, and the hapless way he seeks direction from other people. This is well-established territory for Payne, who’s followed protagonists through winding, incident-packed, emotionally complicated journeys of self-discovery in movies from Citizen Ruth to The Descendents to Sideways to Nebraska. In this case, as Paul staggers through the broken shards of the life he’d planned for himself, he bounces off colorful characters at every turn. His upstairs neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), who makes a living by importing full-sized contraband into Leisureland Estates, takes a particular interest in Paul. So does Dusan’s sea-captain buddy (Udo Kier).
And so does disabled Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan Tran (Treme’s Hong Chau), who seems to sense Paul’s weakness, and take it as an excuse to boss him around. As she bullies and badgers him into helping Leisureland’s lowest-class citizens, who live outside its walls in a few dilapidated trailers converted into rusty, disintegrating high-rises, he gets his consciousness raised a bit about poverty and privilege. But the film powers on, through more and more steps exploring the world.
What’s it really about?
Payne has talked about the film as an environmental metaphor, and the film’s interest in the self-serving excesses of the privileged upper class isn’t exactly subtle. Neither is its angst over human wastefulness, and the many pending environmental crises hanging over us. But ultimately, Downsizing’s big problem is that it doesn’t feel like it’s really about enough. Payne and Taylor throw out subplots and sequences where Paul confronts his own good fortune in life and contrasts it with other people’s experiences, but he’s such a bland echo chamber of a character that none of it much hits home. It’s a moral lesson in search of the emotions that might ground it into something other than an oddball abstract.
Is it good?
It’s frustratingly good at first, and then just frustrating, because it veers away from the things that make it unique, intelligent, and exciting. The early segments are marvelously well-observed and hilarious in a low-key absurdist way. Payne and Taylor spend a solid chunk of the film on the curious mechanics of the miniaturization industry, like the way nurses scoop up their anesthetized, freshly downsized clients with spatulas, or the “keepsakes” box that becomes a delivery truck, bringing the downsized their most important un-shrunk personal positions in their new community. And they keep bringing in clever little ideas, like the way a regular-sized rose becomes a giant piece of décor, a statement centerpiece, in a tiny Leisureland apartment. The sequence where Paul and Audrey first meet downsized people they know (played by Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe) is quietly marvelous in the way it considers how small people would need to operate in a regular-sized world.
Then the film heads gently off the rails. The personal stakes in this movie essentially amount to “Which gently benign person will Paul allow to rule his life?” There are a number of options: Dusan wants to pull him into a life of partying, Tran into a life of service to others, and downsizing creator Dr. Jorgen (Rolf Lassgård) into a survival community. There are no villains here, and no decisions with any real import. Paul isn’t enough of a persona to make a difference in any of these communities. He’s an obedient, easily swayed nobody, and Damon doesn’t portray him as particularly divided, or even particularly interested in the options. He’s doing as he’s told.
It’s the dullest route through a fascinating story. Downsizing is packed with familiar faces in small roles, including Margo Martindale, Don Lake, James Van Der Beek, and Niecy Nash. Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern are particular standouts as shills for Leisureland Estates, in a marvelously spry, wry scene that mimics an infomercial combined with a hotel room sales seminar. But it’s easy to feel that any one of these characters is living a more interesting life than Paul. He’s the boring eye at the center of a dynamic whirlwind, but as the film goes on, it focuses more and more on his limited emotional palate and straightforward, unnuanced reactions. It’s like watching a donkey follow whatever carrot is in front of him at any given moment.
There’s so much to love about Downsizing, in its self-aware dialogue, its consciously corny gags, its sense of creativity and adventure, and its vivid creation of an entire new world. At times it recalls Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich in its straight-faced evocation of a world hauled down a rabbit hole. But it can’t get over the sense that it’s a story about nothing, a meaningless decision made by a meaningless man. It starts by reimagining the entire world. It ends by imagining that the most important thing in that world is how one thinly realized character reacts to it.
What should it be rated?
There’s some mild talk of sex, some tame nudity, and a squishy butt-plug gag. The profanity says it’s an R, but for those who don’t clutch their pearls and swoon when someone says “fuck,” it’s pretty PG-safe.
How can I actually watch it?
Downsizing is scheduled for wide release in America on December 22nd, 2017.