Picture a near-future world so strapped for resources that large portions of the population are shrunk to five inches, thereby consuming less space, air, food and water.
Picture a struggling middle-class couple who decide to undergo this process, after which they will live in a hermetically sealed but supposedly idyllic community called “Leisureland,” where the value of their money has been multiplied by ten.
Now picture Leisureland with undiscovered slums, where hundreds live in squalor, forcing attentive “small people” (like the couple) to come to terms with philanthropy and self-sacrifice.
That’s the premise of “Downsizing” -- and none of it works.
Few other recent films more clearly beg the question, “What were they thinking?”
They certainly weren’t thinking about the viewer. Perhaps they weren’t thinking at all.
Indeed, much of the problem is that writer-director Alexander Payne -- who normally works in slice-of-life dramedies -- seems over his head in sci-fi dystopia. He rarely explains the mechanics of his brave new world -- in particular, the wide-spread manufacture of teeny-tiny household items for the downsized (just who makes their cell phones, their beer bottles, their microscopic pens and pencils?). He never explains how Leisureland has a ghetto full of down-trodden blue-collar workers. And worst, when catastrophe looms near the end, he never gives enough info to tell us whether it’s a legitimate threat or not.
On top of all this, “Downsizing” has a case of multiple-personality distorder. It’s billed as an inventive futuristic fantasy, but then about halfway through, it takes a hard left and starts preaching about compassion, connection and caring for the poor. If Payne wanted a message film like this, he need hardly have attached it to such an absurd, unwieldly premise; he could simply have made another fine piece like “Nebraska,” “Sideways” or “The Descendants.” That is certainly what Payne fans were hoping for.
The film features workmanlike performances from Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as the couple, Jason Sudeikis as a downsizing pioneer and especially Christoph Waltz as a charismatic, eat-drink-merry neighbor. But nothing in the script engages us with these people, and the film’s one ray of hope is its dazzling performance by Hong Chau as a Vietnamese amputee with whom Damon’s character slowly becomes entranced.
She’s the sole reason I didn’t label this a true “BOMB,” as our concern for her actually generates considerable suspense in the final scenes.
Her part is so well written, and played with such heart-breaking vigor and transparency, that Ngoc Lan Tran seems to have wandered into “Downsizing” from a completely different piece of cinema.
If only Payne had given us that film instead.
directed by Alexander Payne
Run time: 135 min.
1 1/2 (out of four)
Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use