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Review

Downsizing (2017)

Baby are you down down down down down?

The narrative structure of Downsizing is baffling. The first half of it is a meticulous overview of its high concept: The discovery of shrinking technology, its impact on the world, the reasons one might decide to undergo such a procedure, the steps to being shrunken, etc.

And then the second of the film tells a story in which the high concept plays essentially no role whatsoever: change about six lines of the final hour and it could be a totally separate film happening on normal-sized Earth. This defeats the entire purpose of having the high concept in the first place. You wouldn’t want to watch Groundhog Day that doesn’t revisit the same beats daily, nor Eternal Sunshine that doesn’t show us Joel’s memory getting erased. Why tell a story about people shrinking only to have them wander around a world where everything has been shrunk down to scale to match them so it’s not as if they’ve shrunk at all? Alexander Payne worked on this draft for a decade and this is what he came up with?

I can really only come up with one good reason, and it’s a flaky symbolic one: As we age in a world growing busier and more complicated and interconnected, we humans feel smaller and more powerless. This matches up with Paul (Matt Damon) facing down a lonely divorce and spending time pondering the long-term effects of global warming: with challenges this big, we’re only an inch tall. It’s a nice idea, but I’m not sure we needed to spend close to an hour learning about and watching the shrinking process for all of that to click.

It’s in service a messy, lumpy story. After signing up for the shrinking procedure, Paul’s wife (Kristen Wiig) backs out at the last minute, leaving Paul with an expensive divorce settlement in a new miniscule body. He bonds with his socialite neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and meets political activist-turned-house cleaner-and-amputee Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau) with whom he forges a connection. Ngoc Lan opens Paul up to the idea of filling the social emptiness in his life with service to people around him.

The third act introduces an existential threat and transforms into a Toy Story 2-type dilemma of a isolated self-preservation vs. the mortal coil of human connection. I’ll give Downsizing this: It’s not a sci-fi epic in content or tone, but it has some of the goofy, bombastic sweep of great speculative fiction.

The film is largely held up by the cast: Damon is expectedly watchable, though my theory that every Alexander Payne movie would be better with Paul Giamatti in the lead holds up again; Damon lacks the world weariness that Paul needs. Waltz is relentlessly charismatic as Dusan, sparking some life in the film whenever it starts to drag.

Chau, meanwhile, received some award season buzz: She didn’t get an Oscar nomination but did get a few other accolades, including a Golden Globe nod. She is certainly a compelling presence, but her character is an alien creature: Her thick accent is played for blunt laughs and shocks, her altruism too flat and heroic and inhuman to be believable. Payne had never really tried to tackle race in any of his movies prior to this (and later The Holdovers), and his lack of sophistication on the topic shows here. Honestly, all of Payne’s good movies have been about one (of two topics: losers (usually teachers) with spoiled dreams, the contradictions of middle America (and sometimes both). His only two real missteps, this and The Descendants, are two to most fall out of his wheelhouse.

My parting thought towards ambitious misfires is usually gratitude that they exist and admiration that filmmakers are trying new things. But I’m not sure I can even extend that to Downsizing: my very problem with it is that it stops trying halfway through and becomes something less adventurous. It’s still got enough of that Payne zest and empathy to be a decent watch, but it’s nowhere near the opus the director clearly envisioned it to be.

Is It Good?

Nearly Good (4/8)

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