A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.
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Writer/director Alexander Payne has been money in the bank. From the teenage comedy of Election
to the introspective drama Nebraska
, his movies always hit the right notes. Until Downsizing
takes place in a world where a process called cellular reduction, also known as Downsizing, has been perfected. The general idea is to shrink people down so that they use less resources and take up less space, therefore lessening their footprint and making it more economical for them to live. A man named Paul Safranak (The Martian
's Matt Damon) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig from Ghostbusters
), decide to undergo the procedure. When Paul wakes up small, he learns that Audrey had second thoughts and did not go through with her own operation. His marriage over and his life now "Downsized," Paul has to adjust to his new world.
That's the simple synopsis. Of course, there's way more to Downsizing
, and that's part of the problem. What should be a fun romp of a movie that takes advantage of all the sight gags of both comedies like The Incredible Shrinking Woman
and horror flicks like Attack of the Puppet People
takes itself way too seriously, trying to inject preachy ecological and philosophical ideology into itself. And it fails miserably.
It almost seems as if Alexander Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor (who also co-wrote Sideways
, and Citizen Ruth
with Payne), started out with an quirky idea and a handful of gags, then decided that they wanted to give their movie a conscience, thereby ruining any kind of tonal consistency that the film may have built up. By the midpoint of the movie, the audience forgets that Paul has even been downsized and instead is forced to wade through a bunch of esoteric gibberish and logical fallacies. And by the end, they are just longing for the oversized cracker bit that they saw in the early stages of the movie.
Basically, don't let the cute premise behind Downsizing
fool you. It's not the movie that it pretends to be. And just when you think you've got what kind of movie it is figured out, it changes. Then changes again. And none of this is good. Downsizing
is just plain bad.
is a rare miss for Alexander Payne. But it's not just the tonal ambiguity and the forced activism that brings it down (although none of that helps). The most glaring flaw in Downsizing has to do with the treatment of one of its main characters. A woman named Ngoc Lan Tran (Inherent Vice
's Hong Chau) is a refugee who lost a leg being smuggled into the miniature resort in a television box after being downsized. Her story in the film is inspiring, but the character is a horribly offensive stereotype. Chau is not to blame, as the choppy and abrasive vocal styling coupled with the stubborn attitude is most likely the way the character was written, and one can't imagine an actress as intelligent and talented as Chau would put forth such a tone-deaf caricature without some direction from, well, her director. Even if that is how Chau chose to play the character, Payne should have stopped her and had her tone it down. Either way, the responsibility ultimately lies with the director, and honestly, Payne should know better than to put a gross misrepresentation like Ngoc Lan Tran on the screen. She is supposed to be the moral compass of the story, but her depiction is facepalmingly cartoonish. And that's all on Alexander Payne.