The official trailer for “Downsizing” does an impressive job of convincing the viewer that the film is a comedy. Let us make one thing clear: this is not a comedy. It’s occasionally amusing, and at some point in the script’s development, it may have been a biting social satire. And then the first act ends, at which point the movie doesn’t just lose its way: it falls off a cliff. Whatever point it was originally trying to make is long forgotten by the end of Act II, and Act III is completely rudderless. Alexander Payne is “credited” with directing the film, but it’s clear that he was bound, gagged, thrown in a locker and left for dead the moment Matt Damon’s character makes the jump to Smallville.
Paul Safranek (Damon) is an occupational therapist who is frustrated by the lack of upward mobility in his life. He and his wife attend a class reunion and discover that one of his classmates has “downsized,” a physical procedure that reduces a person to roughly five inches tall. The idea behind the procedure was to reduce the carbon footprint that humans were leaving on the earth as a means of preventing environmental catastrophe, but in order to motivate people to make the change, the currency exchange turns most normal-sized, working-class shmoes into small millionaires, many of whom never have to work another day in their lives after undergoing the process. Paul, long inspired by the first colony of volunteers who went small years ago, decides to go through with it. From the moment he comes out on the other side, though, his life is chaos.
For a director of Payne’s pedigree, there are fundamental errors in judgment on display here. The shot selection is sloppy, and the editing is nonexistent (why on earth is this movie 135 minutes long?). Paul begins life at the small community Leisureland in a gigantic house, but after a few scenes outside the house, Paul is living in an apartment, which is how he meets a charming procurer of contraband named Dusan (Christoph Waltz). When did this move happen? There is not one shot transitioning Paul from the big house to the apartment.
As Payne characters go, Paul is shockingly underdeveloped. This is the man who has created some deeply flawed and complex protagonists (think Paul Giamatti in “Sideways,” Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt,” Reese Witherspoon in “Election”), but Paul Safranek is a ghost, wandering through life waiting for someone or something to give his life purpose. To make matters worse, the moment where Paul figures out who he is hinges on an indecision (yes, indecision) so lazy that he still looks as though he has no idea who he is.
Lastly, there are all of the missed opportunities at social commentary, briefly touched upon but discarded almost as quickly. Many “normals” resent smalls for a myriad of reasons (abandoned houses are depressing the market, and smalls don’t have to pay income tax), while some countries are using the downsizing process to get rid of political activists. The downsizing phenomenon also adds a new wrinkle to immigration and human trafficking. There are conversations to be had about those subjects, but they never happen. Even the environmental angle of the story is downplayed for most of the film (and at one point, it is mocked). When the environment finally does rear its ugly head, though, the film enters a fugue state. This is Paramount’s holiday movie, people.
There is actually another ‘Lastly,’ which is Hong Chau’s aforementioned Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan, but to be honest, I have no idea what to say about her. Her broken English will have many blowing air out of their mouths in righteous indignation, but at the same time, her character came from poverty and presumably little education. It may not be PC, but it feels authentic. Her character causes several other problems with the story, but that is another matter.
Again, Paramount is releasing “Downsizing” the Friday before Christmas. An R-rated movie (language, penises) that’s kind of about saving the planet but not really, kind of about fear of the new and different but not really, and kind of about how nearly all of our problems are first world problems, but again, not really. Worst of all, the movie looks cheap, when it was surely expensive. People are going to lose their jobs because of this, and that’s a pity.