With his new film, Downsizing, director Alexander Payne seems to be channeling Spike Jonze. What’s missing, though, is the fun that Jonze brings to his work.
The film opens with a remarkable discovery: scientists are able to shrink a human being to the size of 5 inches tall. The world goes nuts over this and in the coming years, there’s been a trend to downsize. That’s where people shrink themselves and live small for the rest of their lives. The thinking is that if you’re small, the savings that you have now will last you forever and you’re not using as much power or food, so your carbon footprint won’t be as bad to ole Mother Earth. The only trouble is, once you go small you can’t go back to tall.
Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play Paul and Audrey Safranek, a normal, middle-class couple who lead a normal, middle-class life. After visiting with one of their friends who has downsized, they both decide to take the plunge. They sell off all of their assets, shave their bodies, remove their teeth and undergo the procedure. But when Paul wakes up, he gets a call from his Audrey who says that she didn’t go through with it.
Now he’s forced to live his new small life all on his own. And where there was promise of happiness at his new size, he finds out that even being small doesn’t guarantee anything. He’s got a job at a help desk, his love life is nonexistent and he’s just miserable.
But when he meets and is befriended by his neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), and his one-legged Vietnamese housekeeper (Hong Chau), his life starts to change for the better. Mostly.
The first hour of the film is really enjoyable. Damon goes from everyman wanting to please his wife to super excited about his future downsizing to incredibly low and it’s really fun to watch. And the way Payne sets up the world of the the film is visually interesting, getting you excited about what might come next.
But then the story veers off into something completely different and we deal with this murky melancholy for the next hour. Paul never snaps out of the funk until the very end and since there’s another hour to go, it feels never ending. Especially since we are bombarded with the metaphor that even though you can change your situation, it doesn’t mean that life always gets better.
Waltz is terrific as a laissez-faire, playboy neighbor but it’s Chau who’s the one to watch. She’s a flat out scene-stealer here. The role is a huge stereotype but she’s fantastic nonetheless.