★★ / ★★★★
Alexander Payne is known for his deeply humanist films (“The Descendants,” “Nebraska,” “Sideways”) and even when his work contains characters with extreme personalities (“About Schmidt,” “Election”), there is almost always a warm and realistic center that is defined and deeply fascinating. It goes without saying that “Downsizing” is the filmmaker’s weakest film to date, but it cannot be denied that it contains many interesting ideas—so many, in fact, that the screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor does not spend enough time to explore every one of them despite a hefty running time of one hundred thirty minutes. It’s a mixed bag.
Those expecting a riotous fantasy-comedy are likely to be disappointed. Worthy of small chuckles throughout, the material is more inclined to establish a certain laidback mood, to give us time to ponder and ask ourselves questions like whether we would decide to downsize ourselves, a procedure in which a person’s body is reduced to less than a tenth of a percent of its original size, given the technology is available. The first half is strong because it is involved with details such as what the procedure entails before and after the fact, the sorts of questionnaires given to volunteers, how their assets would be translated, down to who made the discovery and under which circumstances.
But when it begins to tackle the subject of global warming and how it affects the sustainability of the planet, therefore impacting the human population negatively, it is neither that intriguing nor focused. It does not do or say anything that we have not heard of or read about before, assuming, of course, that the viewer is convinced of the fact that global warming is real. A strange juxtaposition is created between light comedy and a subject that is serious, increasingly relevant, and urgent. The contrast can work but it requires writing so sharp that the comedy is not at all safe.
Matt Damon’s ordinary Joe character named Paul is bland. I go as far as to say he is a bore. While it is possible that this is intentional because he is supposed to be a common man’s conduit into an alternate universe which contains technology capable of cellular reduction, the writers fail to give a great reason, or several good reasons, why he is worth following when he is akin to a leaf being blown by the wind. I think a more interesting avenue might have been to follow a character with a strong personality, like the party-loving neighbor (Christoph Waltz) or the Vietnamese dissident (Hong Chau), because then we would have a compass by which to find ourselves in the constantly changing story.
A viewer might be wise or adjust his or her expectations because “Downsizing” is certainly not within the vicinity of quirkiness or bravado as Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” or Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” Perhaps this is the kind of story that might have translated better had it been pushed to such extremes as the aforementioned movies. With its original premise alone, it could have been a modern classic because the rift between the 1% and 99% is greater than ever. Perhaps on an alternate universe.