Tuesday, Oct 23, 2018
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Big problems: Social message is lost in disjointed 'Downsizing'

  • Film-Review-Downsizing-1

    In this image released by Paramount Pictures, Kristen Wiig, center left, and Matt Damon, center right, appear in a scene from "Downsizing."


  • Film-Review-Downsizing

    In this image released by Paramount Pictures, Neil Patrick Harris appears in a scene from "Downsizing."


  • Film-Review-Downsizing-2

    In this image released by Paramount Pictures, Christoph Waltz appears in a scene from "Downsizing."



Downsizing, director Alexander Payne’s long-gestating project, is a fascinating concept about humanity’s solution to saving the planet — literally shrinking our carbon footprint by shrinking ourselves — that’s been diluted to the point it loses its originality and spirit.

VIDEO: Downsizing official trailer

As a science-fiction herald, Downsizing is meandering, disjointed, and messy, with characters and story threads that intersect but never emotionally connect. Even more damning, Payne’s global climate change crisis satire rarely lands any meaningful blows in its cause.


Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor. A Paramount Pictures release playing at Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, and Mall of Monroe. Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use. Running time: 135 minutes.

Critic's rating: ★½ stars

Cast: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau, and Christoph Waltz.

The film stars Matt Damon as Midwestern everyman Paul Safranek, a nice guy and hard worker crippled by debt, who believes he will be saved through a revolutionary new process known as “downsizing,” in which a person is permanently shrunk to the size of an action figure. A major benefit to the reduction in size is that a little bit of money goes much further in this small economy. The fact that shrinking the human population dramatically reduces our strain on the planet and its resources, Downsizing goes on to suggest, is mostly a sales pitch.

“You live like kings,” Paul’s high school friend, Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis), who was recently downsized, promises him. “The best houses ... the best restaurants ... ”

Enticed by this “get small” dream to live the rich life in a doll-sized mansion and have the financial wherewithal to afford the best of everything, Paul gets downsized, only to learn post-shrinkage that his wife (Kristen Wiig) changed her mind about joining him and stayed in the full-size world. A divorce follows, which is really more about giving Paul a fresh start in this place, as his tiny paradise proves to have its own big problems, while his past and present are made irrelevant.

For example: After the newly small Paul visits Dave at his mansion, his friend vanishes from the story, never to be seen or referenced again. Downsizing’s script, by Payne and frequent writing partner Jim Taylor, is full of such logic gaps in what can charitably be described as a sloppy procession of half-formed ideas and distractions and dwindling humor, or maybe it’s the result of sloppy editing.

Damon is good at being nondescript, which suits Paul: an unremarkable and unmemorable character on a big adventure that is just as easily forgettable.

Joining him is Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), a downsized Euro investor and playboy, who is Paul’s hard-partying upstairs neighbor and, later, best friend. The story is never really certain if the character of Dusan is social satire, comedic relief, or unlikely sage, so Waltz plays him as all three. Dusan is in service of the story and not in service of the character.

Even as Paul settles into this new lifestyle of decadence, he’s roiled after learning this world of everything has its own distinct classes of people, one being personified by Dusan’s housecleaner, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a persecuted dissident from Vietnam who was forcibly downsized.

Tran lives in poverty, along with a struggling working class of downsized workers and outcasts.

She waddles on a wooden leg that doesn’t fit properly, is quick to speak her conscience, and has a heart that’s only grown bigger as everything else has gotten smaller. In a stirring performance as the story’s most interesting character, Chau is the soul of the movie and its lone bright spot.

With Tran in the story, Paul — and Payne — shifts focus to her plight, and abandons what was the film’s original concern, that of a faltering planet, for a forgettable rebuke of classism and what it means to be a good steward.

Downsizing is crammed with commentary, much of it random and unconnected as in the third act and a Noah’s Ark scenario. It’s like a last-minute clean-out-the-fridge casserole consisting of various orphaned ingredients. Payne is better than this. He’s certainly better than a running joke about herpes that has little to no comedic payoff.

As a filmmaker with a penchant for sharp, observant humor, Payne’s best work examines a single and identifiable character, typically in midlife crises, whose struggles are relatable (Election, Sideways, Nebraska). With Downsizing, he takes the same everyman character, makes him dull, and then places him in a situation that changes at a whim.

The result is a convoluted satire with so many critiques and messages, it’s pointless rather than pointed.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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