Smart Social Satire Turns Too Preachy
The filmmaker whose body of work has often touched on near perfection, suffers a considerably significant stumble with his latest film called Downsizing. Alexander Payne, who explored the sharp contrasts of flawed people dealing with the most difficult of situations in such films as About Schmidt, Election, and Sideways has shown that he understands the precarious nature of the human condition and possesses a skill like few others to bring those visions to the screen.
Payne begins Downsizing with a brilliantly satirical premise about the Earth and the destructive things human overpopulation is doing to our planet. The solution? Shrink humans so we won’t put so much pressure on the planet and its resources. Fortunately, a Norwegian scientist has just discovered a process that reduces a normal six-foot-tall human down to the height of about five inches. An added bonus to being “downsized” is that your money goes a lot further. A modest income in the “regular size” world gets you a mansion in the lap of luxury in Leisure Land, a Disney-esque colony made just for little people. Becoming small is a big decision, however, as the procedure is not reversible.
We meet occupational therapist Paul Sefranek (Matt Damon) and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) who are barely making ends meet but who see downsizing as hope for not only bettering their own future, but also as a way of doing what they can to help the planet. After discussing with good friend Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) who has recently undergone the procedure, Paul and Audrey decide to downsize.
Via a fascinating montage, we’re presented all the behind-the-scenes details of being downsized, including the need to remove all clothes, teeth, hair, and any other non-living-tissue adornments, including… uhm, bowel contents.
Upon awakening, Paul is scooped up with a tiny metal spatula, placed on a miniature gurney and wheeled to the recovery room where he will be fitted with new teeth before eventually being reunited with his wife in their new home.
To this point, Downsizing lives up to the Payne bill as a smartly formulated social satire with plenty of heady things to say about societal struggles, workplace stress, economic disparities and the pressure all three place on our family, marriages, and friendships. It’s clear Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have done their research to give us what feels like a technologically accurate look into the science behind miniaturization. Also, there’s an enticingly disturbing aura lingering about the whole thing. As if there’s a guy down in the hatch, pushing buttons to make it all go wrong.
Then, the film changes.
Suddenly, gone are all the things we loved about Downsizing. No more humorous little visual juxtapositions of tiny humans sitting on giant cracker boxes, or watching movers haul Paul and Audrey’s manhole-cover-sized wedding rings into their new tiny house. No more light-hearted dreaming of “what if this were real?”
What was once a smart and brilliantly entertaining little sci-fi comedy about what it might be like to take such drastic measures to get a leg up in the world has now devolved into a heavy-handed abyss where preachy theatrics about racism, class, and how we’re destroying the planet take importance over the main conceit of everyone being small. In fact, as Paul and friends eventually move to Norway to experience life in the original tiny colony, miniaturization no longer has any significance.
And Downsizing takes another wrong turn when Paul meets a Vietnamese immigrant housekeeper named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) who was miniaturized against her will and shipped to Leisure Land in a TV box. The character is clearly meant to be the personification of “size (race) doesn’t matter” but Chau’s broken English portrayal (though occasionally funny) borders on racist stereotype.
There are just too many ill-advised script decisions, tonal shifts, and on-the-nose themes to lift Downsizing to the heights it reaches for. Plus, at well over two hours, it’s simply too long. Perhaps it would play better as a mini-series or a Netflix original, but as it is, Downsizing isn’t as big as the britches it pretends to wear.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated “R” for language, including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.