This marks the second film to premiere at the Venice Film Festival to have a great director, talented writing team and a cast headed by Matt Damon to end up falling flat on its face.
“Downsizing” stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as a couple who decide to undergo a medical procedure that will shrink them down to five inches tall. When the wife backs out last minute, the husband must adjust to life in his new mini community. Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau and Jason Sudeikis also star as Alexander Payne directs and co-writes.
I am a fan of Alexander Payne. I adore “Sideways” and “Nebraska,” a film that until this year was considered the “worst” of his career. “Downsizing” was on my 2017 watchlist because of the impressive cast and premise, and got generally positive reviews from critics after debuting at Venice. However as autumn wore on and it screened at more and more festivals it got less and less praise, and will now likely be universally considered the weak point of Payne’s career.
For the most part, Alexander Payne’s films all follow a similar topic involving some sort of small-scale journey about self-discovery. “Downsizing” certainly shares some of those points but does mark a bit of a step outside Payne’s comfort zone. With a budget of $68 million it is the most expensive film of his career and the science-fiction twist is also something new. Some of the effects here are fine but at other points, especially when the shrunken people are interacting with normal sized ones, the green screen is obvious.
Pretty much everyone in here that is not Matt Damon or Hon Chau is an extended cameo here and play fictionalized versions of themselves. Damon doesn’t too much stretching of his acting playing a mild-mannered guy who feels he has no sense of purpose in life (“We Bought a Zoo,” “Elysium,” etc). There’s really not much to his character and he just goes through the motions for most of the runtime.
Hon Chau is the most interesting part of this film, for a few reasons. Her character is a Vietnamese activist who was shrunk by her government against her will and now works as a cleaning lady in the small community. Chau, who was born in Thailand but raised in New Orleans and speaks English perfectly fine (based on interviews), talks in a broken accent and at times it is unintentionally comical, others uncomfortable. She has one scene where she gets to cry and it is one of the film’s few genuine moments; all the trademark Payne deadpan moments of dark humor and satirical human interactions are nowhere to be found.
The film as a whole is shockingly not-very-interesting but the third act just takes a massive turn into WTF territory. The whole concept of people “downsizing” themselves is to help overpopulation and to save the environment, so clearly Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor are trying to offer up some sort of commentary about the modern global warming situation. Cool, fine. However suddenly the film puts it at center stage and the world is about to end, nothing we can do, time to start over. It is so sudden and in your face that it make you wonder if the scientists of the film even know what they’re talking about.
First Damon had the failed social commentary in “Suburbicon” and now the environment is addressed here; it has been one woke award season for Jason Bourne.
Also, there is a scene where Damon kisses a sleeping character and when the person wakes up he says “sorry, I misread that signal.” It would be weird under normal circumstances however given the current #MeToo climate and Damon’s own comments on sexual harassment and consent it just transforms to jaw-on-the-floor baffling.
“Downsizing” has the cast and crew to result in a great film but it wastes them both as well as an idea-rich premise. There are moments of actual intrigue or well-acted and sharply written conversations but they are so far, few and in between that it is in no way worth the price of admission or even a rental (this thing runs 135 ungodly minutes). I look forward to see how Alexander Payne rebounds with his next film, and I have no doubt he will, but the sooner he and Damon put this one behind them the better.
Critics Rating: 4/10