FILM REVIEW – DOWNSIZING. With Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier. Written by Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, and drug use. 135 minutes.
Matt Damon is not having a good year. After “The Great Wall” and “Suburbicon” he might have been advised to pick a more conventional film role to re-establish himself with audiences. Instead, he stars in DOWNSIZING, a science-fiction comedy that goes off in so many directions that it ends up being pointless. There are certainly interesting ideas at play and moments that catch our attention, but the whole is very much less than the sum of the parts.
The “what if” premise is that scientists have come up with a way to shrink people to only a few inches in height. It is presented as a way of conserving resources and for those who move to the new miniature communities to live like kings since they can make use of comparatively tiny amounts of life’s luxuries. It may not be the most engaging premise for a movie, but when occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Damon) realizes that he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) will never enjoy the lifestyle they want in their present circumstances, it becomes an attractive alternative.
Unfortunately, writer/director Alexander Payne (who wrote the original script with Jim Taylor) have no idea where to take this storyline, so they take it everywhere. Through a plot twist, Paul gets to move into luxurious quarters but finds himself alone. There he is befriended by Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), who has figured out a way to make a fortune importing goods into the miniature communities. After all, one Havana cigar or bottle of Stoli multiplies in value when it can be broken up into tiny segments.
So the movie turns into a social satire, especially when we learn of the underclass who do the mean labor for the wealthy residents. They’re also tiny but live on the outside, surviving on the handouts of others. That’s how Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a cleaning lady who was miniaturized against her will as punishment for rebelling against her native government. If the story is getting garbled, it’s about to get worse: Tran becomes the film’s love interest. There’s still more, involving Paul meeting Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), inventor of the process who now has second thoughts about it, but at this point, you’re unlikely to care. Indeed, the very notion that these miniaturized communities depend on the continued existence of the “real world” seems to have been forgotten, which might have made for a more interesting conflict than anything seen here.
The cast is stranded by the material. Damon is likable if unmemorable as Paul, perhaps because he wasn’t sure what the movie was about either. Waltz and Udo Kier, as his business partner, are pluses as glib, decadent Europeans who have seen it all. Chau, on the other hand, seems to have been encouraged to play Tran as a cartoon character speaking in pidgin English, making it difficult to take her seriously as a rebel leader. Kristin Wiig and Jason Sudeikis come and go in what are little more than cameo roles, neither making a lasting impression.
As with Damon’s other films this year, “Downsizing” seems to have been made on the basis of a general concept and the casting of Damon. And all three films prove that while both an attention-grabbing concept and a star like Damon can be beneficial to a film’s success, it’s just not enough.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.